The Burial At Thebes, Playhouse, Nottingham <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Sophocles was over 50 when Antigone, his second surviving play, triumphed at the Festival of Dionysus. In its uncompromising view of the immutable laws of gods and men, it belongs to an early age of tragedy, a era in which irreconcilable positions clash and all human parties fall victim.

Surprisingly, the gods are absent; there is no prologue, no initial homily. In Seamus Heaney's new translation, The Burial at Thebes, penned for the Dublin Abbey Theatre centenary last year and here receiving its British premiere, we are pitched straight into the warring sisters: Ismene, who holds that "In the land of the living the laws of the land obtain", and Antigone, loyal not to human edicts, but to "the power that sees all".

Jessica Curtis's set - a mirror image of a Greek theatre, the action taking place on a semi-circular orchestra (dance floor) - supplies a spare, subdued stone-grey background, against which the cast don grey chorus cloaks to speak, sing and dance, then shed chorus garb one by one to assume principal roles. The characters seem almost elemental, as if hewn out of the rocky background; especially effective when Murray Melvin's blind Tiresias confronts Michael Byrne's posturing Creon and dents his breezy self-confidence near the play's close.

The power of Lucy Pitman-Wallace's beautifully crafted production rests in the way she lets Sophocles' lines speak for themselves. Characters, notably Daniel Rigby's doomed Haemon, facing up to his frosty father, do a ritual prowl to introduce themselves before launching in. But action is reined in to a minimum.

Mick Sands' chorus music feels elemental too, superbly sung or intoned by the cast, with lute or solo flute accompaniment. Heaney's chorus metres work wondrously well; some spare three-part chanting, and even in one instance a feel of Irish folksong.

Jodie McNee's Antigone and Michelle Terry's Ismene imposingly lay down the ground rules for this political set-to. Joan Moon's brief blossoming as Eurydice, Creon's hapless spouse, brings added agony to the denouement.

But it's Byrne's smug Creon who unleashes this flood of mishaps. At the outset, he positively preens, basking in the crowd accolades like some dreary demagogue, sputtering doom-laden decrees. Draped in dogma, he looks increasingly like a shipwrecked mariner. What makes Sophocles' version so searingly tragic is that Creon changes his mind. He gives in. But by then, it's too late.