The stubbornness of a tough-talking, reckless ruler; using patriotism as a weapon against civic unrest; a law-and-order leader who demands unquestioning loyalty; a younger generation eager for change. Sound familiar? Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old drama of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and her defiance of King Creon to bury her slain brother, the rebel Polynices, has a strikingly contemporary resonance in “The Burial at Thebes.”
The U.K.’s Nottingham Playhouse Theater Company gives the work a powerful staging in its U.S. preem at New Haven’s Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas. The vivid, impassioned production makes the play an excellent candidate to tour further on these shores, offering auds the trifecta of a Greek morality classic, eloquent English execution and a political story with which Americans can identify.
The production, which began in 2005 before playing London’s Barbican last year, is propelled by helmer Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s vigorous and uncluttered direction. The cast is superb, with forceful, well-spoken perfs from the riveting leads down to each of the members of the Chorus.
But the true star is Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s concise, accessible and lyrical translation, which speaks clearly to modern auds without sacrificing the play’s classic grace.
The phrasing allows the ideas of the classic text to ring familiar and true to new auds without losing its poetry, which is well represented by the Chorus.
Catherine Hamilton is a force of nature — and the gods — as the willful and moral Antigone, daughter of Oedipus in that cursed family.
But in this version, the focus shifts toward the immovable Creon, who resists desperate pleas to change even from those closest to him. (The change in title places the spotlight on the struggle for a moral imperative rather than the story of a singular heroine.)
Paul Bentall’s Creon is a commanding presence, every inch the right-thinking royal with the vocal punch to shatter stone. This is not a wavering monarch with shadings of ambiguity but one who demands attention as well as compliance, a leader who has finally achieved the top spot and wants to show nothing but black-and-white assuredness.
That is his strength and his failing. Not until his own family’s fate turns tragic does Creon see the error of his ways.
Peter Basham holds his own onstage — quite an accomplishment with Bentall — as Creon’s son Haemon, who shows a savvier kind of next-generation leadership, which nonetheless has no chance against the powers that be. Beatrice Curnew as Antigone’s sister Ismene, Cymon Allen as the Messenger, Maxwell Hudson as the Chorus Leader and Richard Evans as blind prophet Tiresias all contribute solid perfs.
Production elements are spare and simple — easing the logistics of a tour — without seeming underproduced. Mick Sands supplies the music and Jackie Matthews the movement, which deepens the production with a formal sense of ceremony.
Jessica Curtis designed a classic-yet-unspecified world of ancient gray walls and robes suitable for statues. It’s as if the tale were being presented in an ever-present limbo, simply waiting to be told and retold through the ages.