The Irish Repertory Theatre‘s new production of The Burial at Thebes sets the stylized staginess of ancient Greek drama in a smooth English iambic pentameter that only a magnificently gifted poet could make sound easy and colloquial. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013, is best known for his lyric poetry; The Burial at Thebes is one of his only two published plays. But anyone who has read his celebrated translation of Beowulf ought not to be surprised that he could render and interpret an ancient text like Sophocles’ Antigone in a style that links the archaic and the modern.
First produced by Dublin’s legendary Abbey Theatre 11 years ago, the play strips Sophocles’ cautionary tale of honor and overreach to its dramatic core. Heaney injects touches of colloquialism and humor into a sustained declamatory style that takes a few minutes to get used to amid our contemporary naturalistic expectations. But once attuned to the poet’s leathery cadences, we sink into the story of two grieving noble sisters and the overbearing king who forces them to make an unbearable choice.
King Creon (Irish Rep and Broadway veteran Paul O’Brien) decrees that while the body of the loyal Eteocles should be treated with all honors, the “corpse” of Eteocles’ brother, the rebellious Polyneices, who took up arms against Thebes, be left in the open to rot, the most shameful fate imaginable. One of the warriors’ sisters, Ismene (Katie Fabel), sadly accepts the order: “We’re women…we must do what we’re told.” The other, Antigone (a strong Rebekah Brockman), defies the king and buries her brother’s abandoned body, only to be sentenced to death by being walled up in a cave.
The drama arises from Antigone’s stubborn defiance – Brockman tidily conveys a rage seething beneath a respectable exterior – and from Creon’s fall from supreme hubris to sobbing regret.
A degree of rubbery levity comes from the character of the Guard, a fearful but principled soldier given a memorably twisted performance by Colin Lane.
Spectacle arises from Tony Walton’s set, a simple stump-platform framed by golden-hued ropes, and from period costumes that look fanciful under Brian Nason’s otherworldly lighting.
The full effect results from the courage of the company’s convictions. Directed somberly by Charlotte Moore, the cast plays this elegant one-act with an elevated but ultimately believable humanity. Creon’s son Haemon (a fiery Ciaráan Bowling), who is also Antigone’s betrothed, wants nothing more than to be loyal to his father, but recognizes, as Creon doesn’t, the importance of appearances. (Politics and power: same as they ever were.) By contrast, Creon’s wife Eurydice (Winsome Brown in an admirably committed performance of a tricky role) is a flowery mystic the likes of whom it’s not at all hard to find in crunchy-granola communities to this day.
Finally, Creon collapses in shame and guilt after his stubborn insistence on a ruler’s need to persist, even in a mistake, results in the deaths of his beloved son and wife. Having ignored Haemon’s pleas for sanity and even the ever-sage advice of the blind seer Tiresias (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the king melts into a moaning shade of a man, wishing nothing more than to die.
I’m once again impressed by a fine Irish Rep production that’s different from every other one I’ve seen. The company casts a wide creative net, and its catch is consistently arresting. The Burial at Thebes is at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, until March 6, 2016. For tickets visit OvationTix or call the box office at 212-727-2737.