by John Stoehr
Tonight is your last chance to see The Burial at Thebes, a play based on Sophocles' Antigone translated by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It's an ingenious production with minimal set design — just a bare stage with a round lattice-work background that serves as an entrance and exit point. The Greek chorus wears large linen robes. Director Lucy Pittman-Wallace (picture above at the party after the play's opening last week) had actors take the robes off the become distinct characters in the play (such as the messenger, Tiresias, Eurydice, et al.); they put them back on when they want to disappeared into the chorus again.
There are musical interludes, too, written by the Nottingham Playhouse's Mick Sands. These you don't see in reading any of the many translations of Sophocles' tragedy. The play in fact begins and ends with a rumbling dirge over which is a falsetto ululation, which sets the tone of the play as a story taking place long, long ago in a place far, far away. Interludes feature actors singing and playing bodhan, cellos, lute, and oboe. It's an incredible display of the troupe's versatility.
One of the interludes is a fable about man's origins. He is of nature and not of nature. He is an animal and he is not an animal. The song acknowledges this double consciousness and the solutions man has come up with, namely religion, ritual, laws, community custom. The song is brilliant. It express two things at once. One is the value of the individual in traditional societies, like Thebes. The other is an important bit of foreshadowing of what's in store for Creon, King of Thebes. Does a man exist when he's a pariah? In the end, Creon, fallen from power due to his blind hubris, says that he "does not exist."
Heaney's translation is pitch perfect. Once again, the Nobel Prize-winning poet distills every word until it's sodden with juice. Antigone, played by Catherine Hamilton, is given lines that sound like resignation and longing, that are moral in nature and unimpeachable in their rhetoric. Creon's language, spoken with macho heft by Paul Bentall, is staccato and militant. He's the benevolent tough guy. Kind until you cross him. Crude and ill-mannered (if his son, Haemon, doesn't marry Antigone, he will "find other fields to plow," Creon says). A second-rate king but king all the same. The soothsayer Tiresias gets the choicest lines: "You can't stab a ghost," "My shafts are tipped with truth and they stick deep," and so on.
Pittman-Wallace told me that when he was translating Antigone, Heaney was thinking about the Iraq War and George Bush's with-us-or-against-us brand of foreign policy. There's isn't much in the text to suggest this, except that Creon slowly succumbs to paranoia, xenophobia, distrust, and neurosis, traits that many Americans — about 50 percent, you might say — would attribute to the Commander-in-Chief. At one point, Creon rails against the treasonous disease of the "anti-Theban Theban."
I can see why The Burial at Thebes was a smash hit when it premiered in 2005. And why it was again popular during its revival last year. But as America moves into the middle of a new election season, in which for the first time a black candidate is sweeping the nation with his charisma and message of hope, we are increasingly turning away from the past and looking more and more to the future.
Hope and optimism are taking the place of whatever need we had to see our leader getting his due in tragic form. As I watched Thebes, I felt a pang of impatience whenever I sensed an allusion to Bush. It's been long enough with that stuff. Let's leave it alone now. We've got Barack Obama now. A time will come again in American political history for a need to experience the tragedy of Creon.
But 2008 isn't that time.