Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Burial at Thebes – freedoms lost as a tyrant locks down society and reaps the bloody consequences (Bright Umbrella Drama Company)

Having camped out in the splendid Little Theatre church hall in east Belfast (complete with dramatically useful balcony and staircase) for a number of years, Bright Umbrella Drama Company’s first post-lockdown production is also their first in the main church space next door, their new Sanctuary Theatre.

The Burial at Thebes is a family tragedy. As two sisters – children of a former King – mourn the death of their brothers, their newly enthroned uncle insists that his mortal rule shall override the gods’ law that all shall be properly buried whether traitor or not. Headstrong Antigone stands up to her uncle Creon (and future father-in-law because they’re supposedly a close family) and pays the price. But has the domineering King set in motion a bloody chain of events that will doom his reign.

I’ve seen bigger desks in car park attendant huts, but when Glenn McGivern steps out of his corner office, the King’s voice bellows around the stage like the tyrant Creon is shown to be. Eleanor Shannon is steely as an intractable Antigone who stands up for her disrespected sibling.

Nathan Martin (playing Creon’s son/Antigone’s fiancé) pulls off one of the most interesting scenes in a speech that slowly swerves from him being unquestionably loyal to his father, to taking the polar opposite position of doubting the ruler’s morals and pitching his own lot in with his not long for this world future wife. It’s a lovely moment of theatre.

The production hides its sense of place in a bit of a fog. The use of the actors’ natural and varied accents doesn’t offer any clues, but it doesn’t feel like it’s Norn Iron. A JFK poster on the wall suggests 1960s America, while the cramped set – apparently, the City of Thebes Civic Centre! – nods towards some kind of tinpot fictional fiefdom with a small aerodrome and an army that might fit into the back of a bus.

The high stage in the new theatre space offers those in the back pews better eyeline to the action, while Trevor Gill’s direction uses the aisles to boost the number of entrance and exit points to the set. Scaffolding adds height to the action, though the laser light show between the two halves feels anachronistic.

The eighty-minute production has good pace throughout, and while the social distancing creates additional space between characters who might otherwise have been emotionally wrought and beating each other’s chests, the occasional use of masks and blocking choices didn’t detract from the thrust of the play.

Somewhat problematic was the mountain top cave that was (possibly figuratively) accessed via a fiery pit, while an earlier scene which bravely allowed a piece of dialogue to continue while the character walked off stage into the wings before returning into view a few stanzas later.

There are points when the Seamus Heaney’s script feels like it needs another edit. Is it literary heresy to suggest that the great writer could have dropped some of the repeated “beyond the pale” phrasing and introduced even more Irish idiom into the overly classical style of this most ancient of plays?

While George W Bush was certainly in Heaney’s sights in 2004 as he adapted Sophocles’ Antigone for the modern stage, the freedoms (mostly religious) being undermined by the state in The Burial At Thebes have some extra resonance in these locked down times of COVID. I so wanted Creon to become an allegory for Trump, but ultimately the king is written as a more thinking and reflective villain so this can never come to pass.

With a good run in Bright Umbrella’s home venue this week (until Saturday 7 August), with an extra date on Friday 20, and then Dublin (Friday 3 and Saturday 4 September) and Enniskillen (Thursday 9), the cast of eight will get the chance to really settle into their roles and perhaps build on an early scene which cajoles the audience to become complicit in the King’s adoration.

The cast and crew should enjoy positive audience reactions as they bring live theatre back onto the stage and fire up imaginations with a good post-lockdown production which is accessible and has more than a whiff of the issues of our times. Tickets and venue details on the Bright Umbrella website. Get booking now.

No comments: