In any version, Sophocles’ prize-winning 409 B.C. Greek drama “Philoctetes” has a moral stature and a static storytelling style that would test the abilities of even the world’s most accomplished classical companies. It is to the credit of the Yale Repertory Theater, then, that it has mounted such a telling production of 1995 Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of the play, “The Cure at Troy.” This late 20th-century verse version may, oddly enough, lack sufficient poetry — too much of its dialogue being cozily conversational to the point of mundane modernity — and the cast may lack the ideal dramatic size and vocal allure, yet director Liz Diamond’s production has a blunt, direct quality that well suits the very direct virtues of Heaney’s take on Sophocles.
The story being told is an incident from end of the Trojan War. In brief, as the Greeks set out for Troy, they marooned Philoctetes (Reg E. Cathey) on an uninhabited volcanic island after a snake bite refused to heal and he was stricken with a stinking, weeping wound. Ten years later Odysseus (J. Ed Araiza) and Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (Luis A. Laporte Jr.) arrive on the island to persuade Philoctetes to come to Troy. The fates have decreed that he, with the help of the magical bow and arrows he was given by Hercules, would give the Greeks victory over the Trojans.
Odysseus, in particular, plans to capture Philoctetes by trickery, or at least sophistry. Young Neoptolemus abhors such “duplicity/complicity,” his self-respect and sense of moral responsibility suffusing the play. (It’s not surprising that 1947 Nobelist Andre Gide also wrote a version of the play.)
In the YRT production all this is played out on set designer Louisa Thompson’s jagged heap of gleaming obsidian, where caves house the abandoned Philoctetes. The cast negotiates its terrors with aplomb, clambering, sliding or limping (in Philoctetes’ case) up and down it. At times it’s bathed in blood-red light, echoing the wine-red costumes.
There are no women in Sophocles’ play, but this production uses three (Angela Bullock, Robin Dana Miles and Socorro Santiago) as the Chorus, which in Heaney’s version also play the crew members of Odysseus and Neoptolemus’ ship. The Chorus also take over the role of Sophocles’ deus ex machina, Hercules, who in the original makes an appearance toward the end in order to hasten Philoctetes’ departure from the island.
Heaney has said that he wrote his version in verse “in order to preserve something of the formal, ritualistic quality of the Greek theatrical experience.” He has done so most successfully in his use of the Chorus, giving it a poetic and dramatic intensity sometimes lacking elsewhere.
Composer David Van Tieghem’s eerily beautiful and atmospheric music for the production, including tintinnabulations, rustlings and fateful drumbeats, adds considerably to its impact.