Wednesday 24 October 2018

Triumph of tragedy

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

The most striking feature of Patrick Mason's new production at the Peacock of Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes is the elimination of the Chorus. In the original production four years ago, the Chorus was a two-man affair. Here, the elders of the city fulfil the chorus function as a conference table of grey-beards; but they do more than comment on the action: these men, visibly older and wiser than their king Creon, hector the king's decision to endorse his authority by walling up his niece Antigone, despite the fact that she is also promised in marriage to his own son; and they identify with Antigone's anguish in her doomed determination to break the law by giving her dead brother funeral rites rather than leaving his body to rot in disgrace.

It has the effect of humanising Sophocles' great tragedy, and makes the Heaney version an altogether warmer and more compassionate piece this time than it played four years ago. There has also been some tightening up of the text. As Mason directs it, this is a domestic tragedy, a family at war with itself; it is almost coincidental that the outcome will affect the welfare of the state at large; it is almost by osmosis that we realise that the slight, distraught form of Antigone is more than a heartbroken girl, that she represents justice; she is the real godhead among these people who invoke the power and intervention of the gods so readily.

Mason has also run the scenes together, so that the dust-covered messenger arrives with his harrowing description of the scenes in Antigone's death chamber hard on the heels of her being dragged off to face her fate. It adds to the intensity and inevitability of the catharsis, as Creon's world crashes around his blood-and mud-spattered body (a superb Declan Conlon). But the insistent tightness, so effective dramatically, does perhaps play down some of the subtleties. It is less than obvious, for instance, that Antigone's refusal to allow her sister Ismene to die with her is not a noble gesture to save the other woman, but a rejection of her as not worthy to share the martyrdom.

There is some spectacularly good playing: Gemma Reeves is a palpitating, heart-rending, dignified Antigone, bewildered but steadfast, unwillingly thrust into her heroic role. And she gets terrific support from Kathy Rose O'Brien as Ismene. Chris McHallem turns the sergeant-guard into a laconic comic turn while maintaining his sense of terror at having to bring terrible news to an iron-fisted monarch, knowing that death may well be his thanks.

Jane Brennan's cameo as Eurydice is a miniature portrait of despair, and Aonghus Og McAnally and Peter Hanly deliver themselves well as Haemon and the Messenger, while Barry Cassin leads the posse as a dignified Elder.

Ferdia Murphy's costumes are modern, but out of time, and his set is a visual post-war tristesse, excellently lit by Sinead McKenna.

There was no programme for First Love at the Pavilion Theatre: I asked at the box office, to be told they were on sale at the bar. There, I was told there was no programme. I asked again, and was told (impatiently) that was the case. At the box office, I had been asked three times for my name, which I gave, along with that of the Sunday Independent, only to be asked if I was sure I had a reservation. The indifference was worthy of a Beckett character, but was certainly not worthy of the wonderful Conor Lovett of Gare St Lazare Players, who was presenting Beckett's First Love as part of an Irish tour.

First Love dates in French from 1970, in English from 1973, a decade later than Happy Days. For such a comparatively late piece, it is positively garrulous, but it traces the same hopeless territory of the character sickened by the closeness of human relationships. It also has echoes of the author's own disastrous "first love", and of his state of mind during his time teaching at Trinity, where he caused family and friends severe worry.

The character is hopeless in his self-disgust. Speaking of his own birth date, he claims that unlike his father's, which he had to take from the latter's tombstone, he says in doom-laden tones that it "remains graven in my memory". Taken in by a smitten prostitute when he is thrown out of his home, the character longs for "the supineness of the mind." He "needs silence to live my life" and is driven to the edge of insanity by the laughter and groaning of his saviour's clients in the next room. And when she gives birth to his child, her child-bed groans are more than he can take, and he leaves the flat for good.

The barren inhumanity is terrifying; yet in Conor Lovett's hands, it shrieks unspoken for forgiveness, and trails its haunted tendrils through a life of groaning from a mind that will never achieve its desire to be supine; because against all effort, humanity cannot be snuffed out. Bleak, wonderful, and chilling.

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