The Burial at Thebes, Shakespeare's Globe, London

Michael Church
Thursday 16 October 2008 00:00

Greek mythology has left us the story of Antigone, who defiantly buried her brother with full political honours, and was herself buried alive as a punishment. It has been conscripted by groups as varied as the French under the Nazis and the Romanians under Ceausescu, and also by Seamus Heaney, in The Burial at Thebes.

Sophocles, on whose great play Heaney modelled his, avoided any contemporary allusions, allowing the story to resonate everywhere: Heaney has now turned his play into a libretto for an opera by Dominique Le Gendre, which, under the direction of the Nobel poet Derek Walcott, has re-emerged in a corruptly-governed, voodoo-worshipping part of the Caribbean. Since Walcott and Le Gendre both hail from that part of the world, this made good sense.

Le Gendre may be a prolific composer, but has little experience of opera, while Walcott confesses he has "never been much attracted by opera". But it was as opera that this show would have to cut the mustard.

In the event, Walcott didn't capitalise on this theatre's possibilities for a Greek staging: the whole thing took place under harsh electric light, with the audience firmly excluded from the action. With a lone dancer making periodical appearances to suggest the voodoo element, the performers stood and delivered. Alas, those in speaking roles were infinitely more successful than most of those who sang: only tenor Adam Tunnicliffe, as Minister of the Admiralty, and mezzo Andrea Baker, incarnating Antigone's sister Ismene, had voices to match the drama's demands.

Ably performed by the Manning Camerata, the orchestral score was deft and atmospheric. The best moments had a rapt and ritual feel, but most of the evening didn't rise above amateur dramatics.

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