… don’t bother …

Sophocles’ Antigone is among the greatest plays ever written, Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize winning poet, and Irish Repertory Theatre produces wonderful shows with outstanding actors.  How then did The Burial At Thebes turn out to be a  poor derivative of Antigone, with amateurish acting?

Since their usual theater is under renovation, Irish Rep produced this elsewhere but I don’t see that would explain this disappointing production.

The basic story line is here:  After the death of Oedipus, Creon has become King in ancient Thebes and Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are living there. Oedipus’ son, Polynices, leads a futile attempt to overthrow King Creon and take over the city but Oedipus’ other son, Eteocles, fights to defend Creon and Thebes. The two brothers meet in battle and slay one another.   Eteocles, receives a hero’s burial but Creon decrees that the traitor, Polynices, shall receive no burial but be left exposed, carrion for the birds and dogs.  As when Achilles refused Hector burial in the Iliad, this is an ultimate indignity, a violation of Greek burial practices and a religious desecration.

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, inspired by love for her brother and profound religious principle buries Polynices.  In Sophocles, she covers him with “handfuls of dry dust” and pours libations which suffice symbolically, but Heaney has the poor girl do some serious — though hard to visualize — digging.   Creon vows to execute Antigone for her insubordination.

In a breathtaking confrontation, Sophocles shows Creon arguing for the primacy of laws made by men – here his own arbitrary decrees – and the virtue of obedience for the valuable purpose of keeping order in cities.  Antigone, admitting she disobeyed his laws, claims she acted rightly according to higher, divine, eternal laws.  It’s a great dramatic argument but no one is persuaded, and the play marches on toward its excess-driven tragic conclusion.

Although the characters and their motivations are filled with ambiguities, the argument between Antigone and Creon has been interpreted as a confrontation between freedom and tyranny.  Antigone is often seen as a principled, inspirational beacon of liberation facing down a dictator.  This was understood tacitly, for example, when Jean Anouilh produced his adaptation of Antigone in Paris during World War, during the Nazi occupation of France (George Steiner takes up Anouilh’s play and other variations on the theme in his book, Antigones).  Heaney, here, relates the Antigone-Creon conflict to America’s entry into the Iraq war.  This is so forced it makes one impatient:  whatever one’s opinion of George Bush or the war in Iraq, there’s no analogy.

While several of the actors have impressive resumes, the overall sense of the acting is amateurish.  Actors whom I’ve seen do outstanding work in other plays, including at Irish Rep, are insufficient here, and the accents are all over the place.  Rod Brogan rises above the general level and is exciting as the Messenger who has the sorry task of bearing bad news.

The poetry is strongest in some lyrical passages where Heaney draws directly on Sophocles’ imagery but elsewhere it seems to lack imagination.  I heard the cliché “beyond the pale” used three times in referring to arrogant action, which felt like poetic fatigue.  Heaney truncates important aspects of Antigone, including the famous choral “ode to man,” as it’s often called, and draws others out too long.

The best thing that Heaney did here was to not call this play Antigone.   Still, I worry that people will see this and think they’ve seen Antigone.  They haven’t.

The Burial At Thebes plays at the DR2 Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square through March 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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