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Theatre in Review: The Burial at Thebes (Irish Repertory Theatre/DR2 Theatre)

Rebelah Brockman, Paul O'Brien. Photo: Carol Rosegg

I've never been so happy to see Tiresias in my life. As usual, whenever the blind poet shows up, it signals bad news for the members of the House of Oedipus -- The Burial at Thebes is a new version of Antigone by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney -- but it's good news for audiences at the Irish Rep, because, at long last, we are in the presence of an actor who knows how to handle verse drama. His name is Robert Langdon Lloyd and he has the stage presence, vocal command, and mastery of meter that have been missing all night long. There's nothing fidgety or actory about his work; he enters, takes stage center, and reveals the music and drama inside Heaney's words.

And while we're on the subject, those words are often lean and pointed, possessed of a contemporary quality without seeming anachronistic. Antigone tells her sister, Ismene: "There's a general order issued/And again it hits us hardest./The ones we love, it says/are enemies of the state/to be considered traitors." Brooding over the ill fortune that caused her siblings to become enemies on the battlefield, Antigone muses to Ismene, "The doom in our blood comes back/And brother slaughters brother/The two of them dead in a day/Are you and I to be next?" Once Antigone goes rogue, interring the body of her slain brother Polynices in open defiance of the law, disaster must follow. A guard, reporting back on the horrific fates of Antigone and her lover, Haemon, describes "a wedding witnessed in the halls of death/And one to teach us living witnesses/The mortal cost of ill-judged words and deeds." In these and other passages, Heaney captures the innate dignity and restraint of Greek tragedy, yet the play's long descriptive passages, detailing various bloody deeds, have a visceral impact. It makes one wish that somebody would stage The Cure at Troy, taken from Sophocles' Philoctetes, which is Heaney's only other work for the stage.

If only Charlotte Moore, the director, had found actors capable of delivering the verse! Instead, she has assembled a company that is in over its collective head. As Antigone, Rebekah Brockman is woefully lacking in the fierce determination, the inner spiritual fire that drives her, a young woman, to challenge the power of Creon, the king. She speaks in an insistently whiny head voice that is distinctly off-putting; furthermore, she seems unable to add any vocal variety to her lengthy speeches, hitting the same note of girlish outrage to the point of monotony. Indeed, she appears to be untrained in classical technique, and, at the performance I attended, her voice was already exhibiting signs of wear and tear. If she keeps this up, she is likely to end up with a case of vocal distress. Paul O'Brien's Creon is anything but a tyrant determined to hold onto his power at all costs; he comes off more like an irritated middle manager dealing with a particularly knotty problem in human resources. Like Brockman, he shows little or no facility with the verse. (He does improve, however, in the final scene when, blood having rained down on his family, he is consumed with remorse.) Watching the two of them have at each other, you would never suspect that the fate of a kingdom hangs in the balance. Winsome Brown, who plays Creon's wife Eurydice, repeatedly enters with her arms extended, as if in supplication to the gods; this is pretty much her entire performance. Katie Fabel's Ismene makes almost no impression.

Might they be capable of giving better performances under different circumstances? In any case, it appears that Moore hasn't worked with them to find an appropriate style for this highly ritualized form of drama. Instead, she seems to have approached The Burial at Thebes as a naturalistic family drama laden, for some reason, with lengthy arias. It's no wonder that the actors are so terribly at sea. The speeches are the drama, and it is the business of anyone acting in the play to shape them into powerful set pieces that push the narrative along.

Much closer to the true spirit of things is Tony Walton's set, which features a quartet of abstracted Greek columns made of white ropes, set against a cyc behind which can be glimpsed an eerie collage of faces representing -- what? -- souls from the underworld? The remains of slain warriors? It's a subtle, but highly suggestive, effect. The set is slightly overscaled to the tiny DR Theatre stage, however, and characters entering from stage right are forced to step awkwardly around one of the pillars; surely a slight adjustment could fix this. Brian Nason's lighting makes excellent use of well-chosen angles and saturated color to lend an extra note of drama to Walton's design. Linda Fisher's costumes and Zach Williamson's sound design are perfectly solid.

The Irish Repertory has given us many fine things, mostly in the vein of naturalist; it has had great success with the works of Shaw, Wilde, Brian Friel, and others, including such lesser-known names as John B. Keane. The company has shown a real knack for Eugene O'Neill. But all of these works exist in a separate creative universe from Greek tragedy, even one interpreted by a 20th-century playwright; The Burial at Thebes demands a set of skills that is entirely absent here. When Tiresias is the production's main attraction, something is definitely off. -- David Barbour

(25 January 2016)

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