What a pleasure to see the work of one of our Irish Nobel laureates given an invigorating full production on a New York stage. Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone is called The Burial at Thebes and it’s currently being produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre at its temporary home at the DR2 space just off Union Square.
The language of war can be as imprisoning as war itself, Heaney reminds us in a play that is at all times haunted by this dual awareness. In an illuminating note the poet wrote to introduce the text (reprinted in director Charlotte Moore’s notes) he adds: “Early in 2003, the situation that pertains in Sophocles’ play was being re-enacted in our own world. Just as (King) Creon forced the citizens of Thebes into an either/or situation in relation to Antigone, the Bush administration in the White House was using the same tactics to forward its argument for the war in Iraq.”
The enemy in the Iraq war was given the amorphous, catchall name “terror” and the snare was set. “If you don’t support the eradication of this tyrant in Iraq and the threat he poses for the free world, you are in the wrong side in ‘the war on terror,’” Heaney counsels.
By giving the enemy such an ambiguous name the Bush administration gave themselves the scope to shift the goalposts whenever and wherever that became necessary, and that’s exactly what they did.
The central conflict in The Burial at Thebes is laid out early on in the play, and it’s as insuperable as Bush’s own unbending worldview.
King Creon has declared that Polyneices, who has attacked Thebes and was killed in the battle, must be denied burial as a traitor to his own city. You are either with me or against me in this, he makes clear.
But Antigone, Polyneices’ heartbroken sister, asserts that it is her right to bury a family member, and so she vows to defy Creon’s order. That leaves principle to battle pragmatism, the individual to oppose the state, the family to take precedence over the citizen.
Conflict this intimate, this close to home, between implacably opposed foes, is of course very recognizable to Irish audiences, and so the play, which was originally commissioned to mark the centenary of the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater, has an added voltage for this director, company and many audience members.
The asymmetric nature of the conflict is also telling. Creon (played by Paul O’Brien, who wields his authority with as much detachment as bluster) holds the power, wears the crown and directs the armies. He has no need and feels no need to accommodate any view other than his own.
As Antigone, actress Rebekah Brockman is a thoroughly convincing portrait of courage, compassion and fury, but we learn she will readily reject foe and family alike in pursuit of her high-minded objective.
Ismene, played by Katie Fabel, is Antigone’s cautious sister, who nevertheless finds herself railroaded and scorned in the standoff between these two foes.
It’s clear in production where the poet’s sympathy lies, having grown up in a time and place where two compelling arguments saw the scales tip in favor, over and over, of the might of the state.
Heaney’s Antigone wails at injustice and is prepared to sacrifice her own future to honor the dead. That’s a siren call that many of the poets’ own generation headed, with equally lethal results.
But his meditation on obstinacy, on overweening male arrogance, that overbearing vanity that will admit no perspective but its own is as timely today as it was in the time of Sophocles.
It’s remarkable how nimbly the language moves between court and country, between blank verse and prose, between officialdom and ordinary life, between Greece and Ireland. Heaney shows us what happens when the might of the state bears down on the lonely citizen and buckles when it expects to break.
As Tiresias, the blind prophet, Robert Langdon Lloyd delivers his verdict to the wayward Creon in the play’s electrifying final act. It’s too late of course. The king’s arrogance and vengeance has set his kingdom and country on a disastrous path that will decimate his hearth and happiness.
Director Moore has given us a simultaneously fast moving and meditative production, mindful of both the Irish and American consequences of that most Greek of calamities, hubris.
The Burial at Thebes is playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre until March 6. For tickets and showtimes visit www.irishrep.org.