One of the greatest of Greek tragedies adapted by one of the greatest of living poets: how could it go wrong? Yet it does, in this Nottingham Playhouse production of Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' Antigone.
Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, the play is in London for a run at the Pit in the Barbican. It was here in 1988 that Deborah Warner unfolded a revelatory Electra and that Katie Mitchell opened fresh possibilities in the handling of the Greek chorus with The Phoenecian Women. One of the puzzles of this Burial at Thebes is that it is as if these earlier stagings – object lessons in how to bring Greek tragedy alive to a modern audience – were only faint memories.
Heaney's version was partly inspired by the war in Iraq and the American mentality that there is no middle course between bug-eyed state-security patriot and softie sympathiser with terrorism. But I'm not sure Iraq gets us very far here. It's Bush, who stands for security at all costs, who invokes God, not the opposition; there were closer parallels with the situation in Northern Ireland and, indeed, they were intimated in The Riot Act, the Antigone by Heaney's fellow poet Tom Paulin. In any case, contemporary allusions aren't handled adroitly in the text and are swamped in the production by dreadful attacks of stylistic indecision.
Heaney is not the first to change the title: Stephen Spender replaced Antigone with Creon in recognition of the fact that it is Antigone's uncle, the ruler of Thebes, who faces the tragic dilemma of how to react to her disobedience. The Burial at Thebes suggests a neutrality that the production honours mainly by presenting heroine and uncle (badly played by Abby Ford and Paul Bentall) as ranting mad persons who yell at one another.
There's a folk-Irish-tinged chorus, a good Tiresias, some fairly compelling sequences of mimed re-enaction, and enough arms forking up to the heavens that I felt like renaming the show "Springtime for Creon". Heaney's translation is weirdly unsuccessful – witness the bump of register in "Antigone, child of doom, have you gone and broken the law". I quote from memory because – another big irritation – a translation by a Nobel laureate was somehow not for sale on the opening night.
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