The Burial At Thebes – June 2008

8/10

Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Friday 27th June 2008

This was a very good version of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The language was formal and declamatory for the most part and every word came across clearly. The guard who reported the un-desecration of Polyneices’s body was the only one who spoke in more conversational English and with an accent, differentiating him nicely from the toffs.

The set was very plain. What looked like wooden panels, worn and battered, curved round the back of the acting space, with a central doorway for entrances and exits. There were irregularly shaped holes where there would have been knots in the wood. Centre front was a large bowl, spotlit.

The play opened with two men taking scoops of sand from the bowl, and then backing off to the sides of the stage. Antigone and her sister then tell us what’s been going on. Oedipus their father married his own mother (Greek drama has a way of going to places most other plays avoid) and his children, who are also his half-siblings, are still suffering for his sin against the gods. Their brothers are both dead, one fighting for Thebes and one against. The pro-Theban brother is being given full honours while the other one is being disgraced by not having a funeral rites. Apparently this means he won’t get his heavenly Oyster card and will be doomed (I think that’s the gist). Antigone is all for disobeying the order to leave her brother’s body to decompose naturally, but her sister is too scared to go against Creon’s command. Creon is their mother’s brother and the new king, so what he says goes or else. Antigone isn’t put off – she knows the dangers, but she also knows the duty she has towards a brother and the gods. She’s a tough nut, that one.

Creon appears next, giving an excellent speech designed to win the loyalty of his new subjects. It’s all smarm and charm at this point, but it isn’t long before the paranoid control freak shows through. There’s a bit of concern amongst the gathered bigwigs about the decree against the burial, but Creon soon smoothes that over. However when the guard turns up to tell Creon that someone has carried out the funeral rites for the dead man, he starts to go all Gordon Brown on us (stroppy and authoritarian, that is).  He’s convinced ‘they’ are out to get him, and that some rich people have bribed the guards to turn a blind eye to the funeral rites. He tells the guard to bring him the guilty party or he’ll be strung up instead. Naturally the guard’s a bit miffed by this, and decides to run away.

Now we’re introduced to Haemon, Creon’s son, in song. As the chorus sings of his great abilities and virtues, the character demonstrates these in mime. This is just a short intro – in fact, I don’t think I got his name at this point – and then we’re into Antigone’s arrest by the guard and the hearing before Creon and the chorus. Creon shows little pity – he thinks women should stick to the home, never mind disobeying him or carrying out a funeral service. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it’s his niece he’s condemning to death, though it does disturb the chorus. Mind you, their main concern seems to be that she’s engaged to Haemon, and how will he take it?

Very well, apparently. After Antigone has had her say, insisting that following the gods’ instructions is more important than obeying the whim of a mere king, she’s taken away to be walled up in a cave. Her sister did try to be noble and join her in her final prison but Antigone rebuffs her – if she didn’t do the crime, she doesn’t do the time. Creon keeps changing his mind about the sister – she’s for the chop, then she isn’t, then she is. Anyway, when his son arrives there’s some friendly words of warning from some of the chorus, but Creon’s not listening. At first, his son speaks up for his father in total support, as a good son should in ancient Greece. This gladdens Creon’s heart, but it doesn’t last. Before long Haemon is suggesting very strongly that his dad should reconsider – better to admit a mistake than upset the gods.

Well, Creon’s not having that, so disaster is pretty much assured (as if there was any doubt!). Tiresias, the blind seer, turns up and his advice is so pointed and so clear that even Creon begins to doubt his actions. He sends people to release Antigone and to tidy up what’s left of the corpse, but too late. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, appears just in time to hear the sad news of Haemon’s death. He stabbed himself after hanging Antigone (or she got him to hang her, whatever). If these people hadn’t been so keen to die all might have been well, but then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. Eurydice is ominously quiet and heads off to top herself, and Creon drags on his son’s dead body – Eurydice’s arrives a few minutes later – for the final weeping and wailing. The play ends with the whole group assembled on stage in near darkness, with just the bowl at the front spotlit.

This was absolutely great. The cast worked brilliantly together. Various actors would discard assorted sheets and blankets to emerge as a character, then re-robe to blend back into the chorus. There wasn’t any humour (which is why I tend to be flippant in my notes) but I don’t expect any in a Greek tragedy, and the intensity of emotion was just right for me. The translation was excellent and very understandable, with a good rhythm and tone that seemed perfect for the tragedy style. One of the best things we’ve seen here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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