First staged four years ago at The Abbey Theatre, Seamus Heaney's version of Sophocles' 'Antigone' returns to Abbey Street in a production which emphasises the original's timelessness by focussing on its central conflict between personal loyalty and duty to the state, rather than trying to draw too much on comparisons on modern day conflicts.
The story centres on the royal family of Thebes and on one of the remaining children of Oedipus, Antigone (Gemma Reeves). Following the death of her two brothers in a bloody civil war, her uncle Creon (Declan Conlon) has assumed power and decreed that one of the brothers, Polynices, shall not receive a burial, because he brought an army to attack Thebes and in the process killed his brother Eteocles. Creon deems him a traitor to both state and family and decrees that his body should be left to be eaten by the dogs. In his actions he emphasises loyalty to the state above all else.
This is in direct conflict to Antigone whose law is dictated by moral code and God. Adamant that her brother receive full burial rites – and prepared to sacrifice her life for her cause – she runs head first into conflict with Creon thus bringing about her demise and that of a host of others around her.
Heaney's version doesn't modernise the play and rather the characters costumes point towards a 1940s setting. Further set design from Ferdia Murphy sees a background wall dotted with bullet holes and photographs, which immediately springs to mind images of post-9/11. However, such comparisons aren't pushed at us and rather we are offered to take from Patrick Mason's production as we wish. Nothing is directly suggested.
This takes weight off the play and though Creon's remark "that you're are a either with me or against me" echoes George W Bush, lines such as "Money brings down leaders, warps minds and generally corrupts people and institutions" could place the play at any political moment.
Where the play falters is in the performances of its two central characters. Declan Conlon's Creon is hard to pin and it's not entirely clear where on the line of principle and madness he lies. When he later begins to see the error of his ways, the remorse in Conlon's portrayal is unconvincing.
Gemma Reeves may be a very fine young actress, though her portrayal of a very human Antigone strips the character of any forceful power. The passion and conviction she displays when discussing her feelings with Ismene (Kathy Rose) are lacking in her conflicts with Creon, and she argues her points whilst almost numb with fear.
The play's highlight comes in the form of Chris McHallem's guard who injects the play with some energy and much-needed wit when he informs Creon of Antigone's dissent.
In all, this production of 'The Burial of Thebes' is engaging and accessible, if lacking in certain areas.