Tuesday, April 06, 2004

REVIEW:The Burial at Thebes (The Abbey, Dublin)

“He that is not with me is against me,” is how King Creon sees anyone who would side with Antigone, or would help in any way her struggle for justice.

And while pedants might point out that it is Matthew’s Gospel, rather than George W. Bush that takes credit for the coining the axiom, when Seamus Heaney blends the phrase into his 2004 version of Sophocles’ drama, its seems unlikely that he simply referring to the good book.

The poet whose political attitude was once defined as “whatever you say, say nothing” appears to be saying -- in the best chosen of words -- that he stands against the global tyranny of Bush and against those who fail to speak against it.

Certainly he’s saying through a literary artefact, and a complex and subtle one at that – but who really expected the Nobel Laureate to start chucking rocks. Instead, Heaney has given a classic tragedy a new translation, spiked it with smooth Irish linguistic figures and leant it a terrible, frighteningly global import.

Heaney’s translation has set every possible contemporary vibration of the drama humming, like so many wine glasses of water that have been just waiting for somebody to rub them in exactly the right fashion. Sometimes the resonances are so loud you expect the cast suddenly to stop and look around to see what that unearthly racket is.

For once any tense, unworldliness in the language allows the audience to notice that we are not hearing to Antigone speak, so much as listening to the universe speak through her.

Canadian director, Lorraine Pintal, provides a new incarnation (with elements of dance theatre) that usefully enhances Heaney’s contemporary urgency without sacrificing a deeply sophisticated sense of timeless rage. Carl Fillion – a frequent collaborator of Robert LePage – aids the campaign with a set of soaring “concrete” walls, at the bunker-like foot of which we find the people of Thebes.

Ruth Negga’s Antigone has the youth, stubbornness (and boots) of Kelly Osbourne, but with a vision of eternal rights and wrongs so firm and angst-free it could easily raise Beverly Hills to the ground. Lorcan Cranitch’s Creon should be able to tell from the messianic glow of her eyes that nothing good will come from tangling with this young women. But of course, the tyrant never does.

Efficient supporting work from Barry McGovern and Garrett Keogh among others, is capped by Aidan Kelly’s brilliant feckless guard, a jobsworth Dubliner happy to acquiesce in any toadiness his masters decree -- up to an including, one imagines, offering the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover for bombers.

In his version of Antigone, Heaney makes it clearer than ever that those who do nothing will face justice along with those who do evil. Where exactly that justice will come from – in the absence of intervention from Mount Olympus -- is less certain.

It is a harshly lit world Heaney calmly points to, one we might have thought long left behind. But as this timely and corrosive production brilliantly signals, the pagan world continues to seep through events around us.

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