Such a tragic by-product of war had a special resonance for Ivo Van Hove's production of Antigone, which opens at Edinburgh International Festival this weekend following a London run earlier this year in co-production with the Barbican, EIF and a host of European partners. Apart from the very obvious parallel with Sophocles' eponymous heroine's attempts to bury the body of her brother, who had been caught in the crossfire of a civil war, the event had a more personal resonance.
One of the victims of the attack was a friend and associate of Van Hove and Toneelgroep, the Amsterdam-based theatre company he has led since 2001, and two weeks before the crash DJed at a party to celebrate the company's production of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.
“The plane had 200 Dutch people on it,” Van Hove explains, “and we still don't know who attacked it, but because it was shot down in the middle of a war zone, all the bodies were laying in the bare fields in the middle of the suburbs rotting. Nobody could get to them, and I really think it was an act of barbarism to do that, to kill somebody but not let anyone treat the bodies. Suddenly doing Antigone became such a close personal thing because of the loss of someone we'd seen two weeks before, and who was on that plane with his girlfriend. Suddenly you wonder how anyone can do that to him. For me that became the human starting point of the production.”
By this time, Van Hove had spent more than a year talking with Juliette Binoche, the French legend who plays Antigone, about what play they might do together, and whether Antigone was something they should even be doing at all.
“What mesmerised me about Antigone,” Van Hove says, “is that it is a play that contains simple but complex themes, because the most simple things turn out to be the most complex to solve. Of course, it's a political story, with this clash between two very different antagonistic viewpoints, but I think Antigone acts because she needs to act. She has to bury her brother.
“For me it became revealing reading Oedipus in Colonus, which is the play that precedes Antigone. There is this wonderful scene between Antigone and her brother, where she criticises him about this war. She says don't do it, don't create disaster. She's very hard on him, but once her brother has died, even when he did the thing that she didn't want him to do, for her it's such a noble, human gesture to bury him.
“So this gesture from Antigone, it is not trying to make a political point against Kreon. That's not in her mind at all. It's a human gesture. The other thing has to do with the fact that Antigone has not only lost one brother, but two brothers. She lost her father a few weeks before, and she lost her mother, though we don't know how, a few months before. So this is a woman in deep mourning. She's not in an everyday frame of mind, and this sense of mourning became a starting point for Juliet on an emotional level as well.”
In execution, Van Hove somewhat typically goes against the grain of how Greek drama is normally rendered by showing the offstage events that are usually only reported after the fact.
“The trouble with the Greek plays is that they're very short,”he says, “and you have to deal with these very complex ideas in a really short space of time. In order to liberate all these themes I decided to showing scenes that are talked about, but which normally you never see. I'm not interested in doing it as the Greeks did it, because they've done it already.”
Antigone marks van Hove's first appearance at Edinburgh International Festival since 1998 at the end of a period when he brought radical takes on Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions, Albert Camus' version of Caligula and Marguerite Duras' India Song to town. Since then, his cavalier way with the classics has seen him labelled by some as eurotrash, as an enfant terrible by others. Either way, none of this prevented van Hove from winning an Olivier Award for his production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, another play that combines the personal and the political.
“When Kreon has also lost a son,” says Van Hove, “he reacts in a political way. He says that there has been enough problems, enough civil war, enough cruelty and enough catastrophe, and that we have to try and fix our society and bring some hope into it. So I suggested to Patrick O'Kane who plays Kreon, not to play him as an authoritarian tyrannical bully, but to be a rational person who thinks he can be a better leader and be someone who can guide his people to a better future.”
This again couldn't be more pertinent.
“We've tried to turn this play of ideas into a play of human beings,” Van Hove says. “It's a play about a brutal civil war turned into a play about the human condition.”
Antigone, King's Theatre, Aug 7-22, 7.30pm (not Mondays), Aug 15 and 22, 2.30pm.www.eif.co.uk/Antigone
The Herald, August5th 2015