Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney brings the holy maxims of Greek playwright Sophocles into the range of modern understanding as he beautifully transfers ancient verities into an Antigone for our time in The Burial at Thebes, running at the Irish Repertory Theatre until March 6. Directed by Charlotte Moore, Sophocles/Heaney’s presentation of a young woman who chooses to take a stand for the immutable, though she will die for it, is energized and revitalized by this sterling production.
Heaney wrote this adaptation of Sophocles’ play in response to Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was protested around the world as well as in the U.S. Cast in that light, Heaney’s adaptation examines the power of the individual vs. the state.
Heaney emphasizes the weak, flawed stature of Antigone (a terrific performance by Rebekah Brockman), doomed by her father/brother Oedipus’ unwitting crimes of incest, patricide and regicide in his marriage to his mother, the tragic Jocasta. How can anything be productive in such a family, which violated itself and the natural laws of blood, whose children Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles and Polynices live in the shameful shadows of their parents’ horrific crimes and tragic dishonor? Oedipus, self-blinded, lives and dies in exile; Jocasta hangs herself.
Thus, the “burial” at Thebes, Heaney’s symbolic selection of title, forces us to examine redemption, expiation and vindication of a blood-corrupted household whose progeny cannot seem to remove themselves from the tyranny of their own stained humanity – until one comes forward and reverses their shame in an act of justice.
Antigone, in her righteous impulse to honor the gods and respect their immutable laws, commits a crime against the laws of the state instituted by King Creon. Upon pain of death and in defiance of Creon’s law to dishonor Polynices as a traitor by letting his body be eaten by scavenging animals, Antigone attempts to bury her brother. With her symbolic act of defiance to man’s law, she has delivered herself to a higher justice. Her stand against the king redeems her spiritual life from the tainted blood of her ancestry.
Her courage and bravery to honor the gods and her brother serve as a powerful example to the populace that justice is worth fighting for, especially when man’s laws are spawned from fear, pride and ego. Antigone reverses her tainted bloodline and converts it to nobility with her death and the two-fold burial of herself and her brother.
Director Moore has shepherded the conflicts between the characters with an edgy tautness and acute sense of drama. In their heated exchanges, Paul O’Brien as Creon and Rebekah Brockman as Antigone, deliver the thrilling force and sentient vitality of their arguments with perfection. We empathize with Brockman’s Antigone and thrill for her courage in a just revolt. We are frustrated at O’Brien’s pompous, pig-headed Creon and especially wish we could upbraid him for taking umbrage that a mewling woman should “presume” to challenge his “greatness” as king by performing the sacred burial rites her brother deserves!
Creon’s misperception of Antigone as the stereotypical, soft-minded woman is particularly galling. And when Antigone remains steadfast, refusing to be cowed by his bullying power over her weak and tortured life which she is so willing to throw down for honor and justice, we cheer her on. Brockman and O’Brien with Moore’s guidance have pulled out all the stops and we are mesmerized by their exceptional commitment to their portrayals.
Likewise, Winsome Brown’s Eurydice, Creon’s wife who is patient, loving and prayerful, the foil to Antigone, shows another facet of the strength women are capable of. In her prayers for the situation to be resolved and her pleas to Creon to relent for their son Haemon’s sake ( he and Antigone love one another), we understand the heart of a mother who wants the best for her children. And we empathize with a wife who sees that her husband’s implacable nature must be churned into froth before it settles into good sense that can eventually break through and lead Creon to the light of life, mercy and forgiveness.
In their interactions Brown’s Eurydice and O’Brien’s Creon reveal the bond between them, but also strongly intimate that the bond of family and love is secondary to Creon’s pride and his fearful insecurity that he must appear the powerful king. Brown’s Eurydice hopes but also is resigned, and this plants the seeds for our understanding why she will choose to take recourse against herself if Creon’s pride of power has doomed them all and the rationality needed to penetrate his thick will arrives too late.
Again and again, Creon’s will is battered by reason and love, especially in his confrontation with his son Haemon, another terrific performance (by Ciaran Bowling). Though Haemon swears to support Creon, he cannot tolerate his father’s recalcitrance and lack of pity toward Antigone. Bowling’s emotional change reflecting Haemon’s shift from venerable support to rage, and O’Brien’s transfer from relief at his son’s initial agreement to goading fierce insult, are superb.
The anger comes from deep within both actors and there is no sense that it is forced. This is the antagonism between a father and son, of justice against injustice, and there is no turning it back. Moore has leveled each scene of action, building one upon another with solid assurance. At this juncture, the pace becomes quick as we are led to the pinnacle where prophet Tiresias’s reputable truth may be able to turn away the darkness that clouds Creon’s will and heart.
Robert Langdon Lloyd as Tiresias is chilling. With the nerve-bending anointing of prophecy, the seer’s powerful claims drive the future toward Creon with terrifying and sinister force. Creon’s refusal to adhere to Tiresias’ adjurations by referring to him as money-grubbing and corrupt could be laughable, but rather it is terrifying because O’Brien delivers this accusation with all the pride of a man who willfully, fearfully sees doom coming and cannot accept its inevitability.
For his part Lloyd’s Tiresias is in a flux of emotions – saddened, surprised, annoyed, resigned at this man who once was willing to accept the truth, but whose role as king has blinded him. Creon’s refusal to hear truth is reminiscent of Oedipus’s blindness. Creon knows what happened to his brother-in-law. Does he not see what may happen to him? This scene is particularly gripping and both actors astound with their determination and energy.
Adding to the ensemble are Rod Brogan (messenger), Katie Fabel (the conflicted and sorrowful Ismene), and Colin Lane (the humorous guard). Each helps to bring together a truly smashing production that resonates acutely for our time. The staging, sets and lighting (I thought the deep reds effective for various scenes) are striking in their minimalism. The four evocative slanted rope/pillars provide an intriguing divided space around which scenes referring to the past as well as the offstage action work particularly well. Actors placed around them evoked divisiveness. Tiresias, appropriately centrally staged and standing above his listeners, is able to pronounce the divine utterance as one separated, alone and heavily burdened with the uncomfortable truth.
The production asks important questions. What can we do when leaders, friends, family members exercise implacable will, creating terrible destruction because they are unwilling to give in or appear weak? Can we lead them to redemption, expiation of their own guilt, or must they come to this themselves? And if they never reach that place within, is not their mental and spiritual sickness a modern tragedy? On another note, if some are willing to stand for honor and justice even though it means their own death in defiance of unjust laws, is this not a vindication and greatness which we should emulate?
Finally, the play reminds us that it is wise to be merciful and flexible, especially if one is a leader. To err on the side of forgiveness and kindness is the sign of a powerful, courageous individual. The Greeks understood this. Heaney extols it. This production of The Burial at Thebes beautifully endorses it. This is a must-see.