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A CurtainUp London London Review
Burial at Thebes

His body's to be dumped,
Disposed of like a carcass,
Left out for the birds to feed on.
If you so much as throw him
The common handful of clay
You'll have committed a crime
— Antigone
Burial at Thebes
Abby Ford as Antigone. (Photo: Robert Day)
Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles Antigone was first produced in 2005, for which Lucy Pitman-Wallace earned a nomination as Best Director in the TMA Awards. Now returning to the same production, although with some cast changes, she takes Burial at Thebes for a short and already sold out run.

Heaney's celebrated translation is muscular, stark and full of interesting rhythms. His focus is on clarity and speakability rather than more high-flown poetical flights of fancy. Even the titling of the play has been naturalized away from Antigone's alien sounding name to a prosaic description. In fact, if anything, I missed Heaney's earthily beautiful language so well-known and loved in his poetry. Like Ted Hughes' Oresteia, the best parts of his translation are those which obviously come from the pen of the modern poet rather than the sections which resemble faithful transcriptions of the ancient tragedy. Nevertheless, the lines possess a good pace and lucidity and there is none of that awkwardness of abstruse terms which often plagues translations of ancient texts.

Aware that Heaney's words are undoubtedly the main attraction of the evening, the production allows the translation to speak for itself with a policy of uncluttered non-interference. However, instead of expressing this with a stylized minimalism, there are curious gestures towards some sort of ancient theatrical authenticity. The chorus of Theban elders, for example, wear heavy, dull grey robes and their choral odes are sung as flat, uninspired hymns. Their poorly choreographed dancing consists of the odd arm-flinging and foot-stamping. The National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae, currently showing at the Lyric Hammersmith, has shown how successfully ancient Greek choral odes may be adapted for the modern stage. Conversely, this production provides a salutary lesson in how not to portray them: in a manner at once unimaginative and staid. In the parados, for example, there is little sense of the city's joyous escape from civil war in the tuneless, unemotional hymn. Although onstage for the duration of the play, as would have happened in the fifth century BCE, they remain largely uninvolved in the action and scarcely respond unless speaking a line.

If the chorus is meant to act as a channel for the audience's response, the apparent boredom with which they listen to Creon's speeches is a damning reflection. Moreover, the deliberately formal, unnaturalistic portrayal is at odds with the acculturating impetus of Heaney's writing. Why re-establish the cultural differences which the translation so cleverly deconstructs?

The other problem with this production is the portrayal of Creon (Paul Bentall) as an uncharismatic, sinister dictator, whose own city mistrusts his judgment and resents his degrees. The play's central problem is the clash between the rights of the civic community (as espoused by the city's ruler Creon), and the deep-rooted bonds of philia, which Antigone champions. It is, in other words, duty towards one's city as opposed to that owed to one's family. Within this conflict, it is easy to interpret Antigone as the innocent, fervent martyr but this neglects the fact that she is a true Sophoclean hero: for all her majesty, she is capable of strong hatred as well as strong love, fatally stubborn and shockingly egotistical.

The most effective productions of this play acknowledge the balance of the tragic dilemma and show it not as a case of right against wrong, but right against right. These are two principles which are both valid within their own spheres but utterly irreconcilable. When Creon is interpreted as the clear-cut villain of the play, and in so an alienating a fashion as here, the audience remain unmoved by his tragic downfall. When Antigone is led off to her death, there is over a third of the play remaining. If she is the sole focal point of engagement and emotion, the production will necessarily feel imbalanced.

In spite of the accomplished translation by Seamus Heaney, this production suffers from a number of misjudged notions and an overall lack of inspiration. It conforms rather to a conventional idea of what Greek Tragedy ought to be like, than actually cracking the core of Sophocles' play.

Sophocles' Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney
Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

With: David Acton, Cymon Allen, Paul Bentall, Sian Clifford, Richard Evans, Abby Ford, David Hobbs, Joan Moon, Mick Sands, Sam Swainsbury
Design: Jessica Curtis
Lighting: Jenny Kagan
Composer and Musical Director: Mick Sands
Movement Director: Zoe Waterman
Running time: 75 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 29th September 2007
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 19th September performance at the Barbican Pit Theatre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS (Tube: Barbican)

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