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Burial at Thebes

Burial ponders if it isn’t all that we are

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Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.
—Seamus Heaney, “Digging”

Like this famous poem about his father — “By God, the old man could handle a spade” — the digging in Seamus Heaney’s Burial at Thebes is both literal and figurative.

First Antigone (Catherine Hamilton) digs up enough Theban dust to bury her brother despite a ban. Then King Creon (Paul Bentall) digs himself a hole in a way that has been repeated by bungling politicians so many times over the centuries it too has become ceremonious.

Heaney, the fourth Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, was commissioned to translate Sophocles’ Antigone for the 2004 centenary of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. This play about soil, both in the everyday sense of the dirt you can grab and the soil owned by the state, is a natural fit for him. He’s a writer known for his elegantly staccato language about the power of everyday things, and for being from Ireland.

Creon has taken over Thebes after a civil war in which his nephews were both killed fighting on opposite sides. Eteocles is buried a hero, Polyneices is left for the dogs, an apparently wise Machiavellian move at unification by the new king.

But Antigone, devoted to the gods’ laws, defies the laws of the state and is condemned to death. And since she’s engaged to Creon’s son, (also her cousin, which when you consider she’s Oedipus’ daughter, really isn’t so gross) things get ugly fast.

Heaney said he renamed the play so as to remind us all of our common mortality. It serves other purposes too, though. (For one, it might trick people into going who don’t want to see a staging of that Penguin paperback they had to read in the 10th grade.)

It also takes the focus off of Antigone, because Creon is the star of this play. Bentall is fantastic as a ruler just effective enough to be ineffective, at once commanding and continually trying to convince himself that staying the course is the right thing to do.

And so yes, with a boneheaded leader claiming that “if you’re not for us you’re against us” and that Polyneices “terrorized us,” this is the play which anti-war Hamlets would like to present for President Bush and gauge his reaction.

And it would be fun to draw modern parallels left and right, but the Nottingham Playhouse production under the direction of Lucy Pitman-Wallace has more of a personal intention. Instead of asking big questions to the world, it asks of you: How far would you go to stand by your family, your God, your country?

This was the company’s first outdoor production of Burial, and the effect is powerful, unifying. Not only is there the pediment and Ionic columns of Randolph Hall resonating as a classical backdrop, but without a curtain the audience is more intimately involved in the reality of the drama. In this play, with stones and dust and fire, if it rains on us it rains on them.

The paradox of religion is that faith is real. The real things, the stones and dust, are both ordinary and divine. The dust Antigone spreads on her brother is not symbolic — she’s doing it so he can literally proceed to the afterlife. And the irony is that Creon eventually gets religion, too late, when he also literally fears the gods.

The acting and spare staging are all flawless. The energetic small company takes turns taking off their chorus robes and taking on individual roles. Catherine Hamilton is radiant as Antigone, Maxwell Hutcheon wonderfully ambivalent as the chorus leader. Especially connective is Matthew Rixon as a regular-Joe guard.

The chorus’s songs, accompanying themselves on lute and drum and violin, are lovely, but compared to Heaney’s clear and plain dialogue, the lyrics become a bit of a blur. Subtitles would be clunky. Perhaps hymnals on the seats?

Burial at Thebes • Spoleto Festival USA • May 30, June 1, 2, at 8:30 p.m. • $30-$45 • College of Charleston Cistern, 66 George St. • (843) 579-3100

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