In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to the Lyric Hammersmith’s Rachel O’Riordan about the disappointment of not being able to stage Seamus Heaney’s translation of Antigone
What is it?
A revival of Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles’ Antigone about the daughter of Oedipus who insists – against the law – in giving her brother, who is deemed a traitor by the state, a proper burial.
“It was a big show with an ensemble of five young people aged 18 to 25 as part of a paid training opportunity playing the chorus. It was supposed to be the closing show of my first season here as artistic director,” says the Lyric’s Rachel O’Riordan.
“A season is not just a collection of titles, it is a carefully curated statement. You are taking the audience on a journey through the season, making connections, so losing Burial feels really hard.
“Every play in that season had women’s stories and voices at their heart, and this play is set in a world that has been decimated and has to be rebuilt on new foundations, so it feels even more pertinent and necessary. Particularly because social justice is at its heart and the question of what you can do when you feel as if you have been totally disempowered.
“I’d been planning The Burial at Thebes as the first of a triptych of Greek plays that we would stage over three seasons. The Lyric is an epic space and it deserves epic plays.”
Who was involved?
It was to be directed by Roy Alexander Weise, with Yusra Warsama playing Antigone and Babirye Bukilwa as Ismene. The rest of the cast included Nick Fletcher, Simon de Deney, Kwong Loke, Alexander Campbell, Pascale Kann, Jessica Mannion, Ethan Peters, Caleb Rowan and Westerfield Shoderu. The designer was to be Lily Arnold; Amy Mae was the lighting designer, and Donato Wharton was designing the sound.
How far did they get?
“Only to the first day of rehearsals,” says O’Riordan. “I had the terrible job of telling the Love, Love, Love company that they wouldn’t be going on that night, and telling Roy and the cast that they couldn’t carry on rehearsing. It feels like such a loss. This was the first time Roy had been offered the chance to work on a classical play. I offered it to him before he got the job as co-artistic director at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Pairing Roy with Seamus Heaney felt such an interesting proposition. A young black man from an urban background with an Irish poet. I felt they would spark off of each other in interesting ways.”
What is O’Riordan doing during the shutdown?
“Staying with my mother in Ireland and thinking about the future. We can feel guilty thinking and talking about theatre when there are people on the front line of the pandemic who are risking their lives every day. But we have to go on and we have to believe that theatre will still matter when we get to the other side; that people who have been isolated and lonely will want to once again sit next to a stranger in a theatre.
“We have no road map for this, we are in unknown territory. The whole of society is on pause. We have to work out how to go forward. What I do know is that audiences are the point of why theatre is here and when we reopen we have to trust in the audience’s continued bravery and curiosity. We can’t be timid. Why have the car if you don’t put any petrol in it?”
Will The Burial at Thebes be seen at a later date?
“I hope so. What I’d love to happen is for Love, Love, Love, which was selling very well, to get to complete its run and then for Burial to happen as planned. There is a thematic link between the two about intergenerational conflict and the burden placed on the young.”
Sophocles’ Antigone: The Burial at Thebes was due to have its press night at the Lyric Hammersmith on April 23, with the run continuing until May 16. Visit: lyric.co.uk
The UK premiere of Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen took place on April 20 at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, 129 years ago.
Ibsen’s story of the General’s daughter who feels trapped in her marriage and suffocated by the prospect of looming motherhood was a play that although, like Antigone, was written by a man, puts female experience at the forefront, just as Antigone does.
Hedda is a woman isolated by the expectations of society and her own nature. Like Antigone, she is one of the great heroines of Western theatre and on a collision course with male authority.
The production was unusual because it was instigated by two American actors, Elizabeth Robins and Marion Lea, who fought to stage it in a translation that they felt worthy of the play. They themselves had creative control and appeared in the production as Hedda and Thea respectively.
There have been many great Heddas since, including Mrs Patrick Campbell, Peggy Ashcroft and most recently Ruth Wilson in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 production at the National Theatre, but Robins made the role her own. She described Hedda as being “pitiable in her hungry loneliness”.
Even that Ibsen hater, the Daily Telegraph’s Clement Scott, grudgingly had to admit that Robins had “made a heroine out of a sublimated sinner. She has fascinated us with a savage.”
Much of the rest of the press were equally appalled by this portrait of what they saw as an unwomanly woman. The Pictorial World described it as a play “that is simply a bad escape of moral sewage-gas”, adding that Hedda’s “soul is a-crawl with the foulest passions of humanity”. The Saturday Review declared it “mean and sordid” and full of “insidious nastiness”.
But there were plenty of supporters too, including George Bernard Shaw, Henry James and Thomas Hardy. Oscar Wilde was also a fan, writing: “I felt pity and terror, as though the play had been in Greek.”