Burial at Thebes

An operatic version of Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes (derived from Sophocles' Antigone)

The Playhouse, Oxford October 19th 2008

This production offered the novelty of blending the work of two Nobel literature laureates - Heaney, whose words provided the libretto, and Derek Walcott, who directed. The score was by the Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre. I was very, very excited at the thought of Walcott and Heaney together - a double act surely made on Parnassus. Alas, this was without doubt the worst production of Greek drama I have ever seen (at least the legendary King's College London Bacchae made the audience laugh).

I am a fan of Derek Walcott. I have been visiting the Caribbean Islands of St Lucia (where he was born and went to school) and Trinidad (where he began his theatrical career) since 1963. I have his poetry on my bookshelf, including my battered copy of Omeros, which I read, as seemed to be required, partly by the Caribbean, and partly by the Aegean. On a personal note, Derek was my mother-in-law's godson, and was of course well known to my late wife's family, who also came from St Lucia. I remember my late father-in-law's comment when I tried to interest him in Omeros: "Hm. I think Derek could have done better that than this." I disagreed passionately then, but his comment came back to me at the Playhouse. Surely Derek, with Heaney's words, could have done better than this?

So what was wrong?

The Production

Dull, static, unimaginative - surely we've got over setting Greek drama on Caribbean Islands, or Bosnia, or Botswana or Bhutan? What insight into the play was added by its setting in the "Republic of Thebes", somewhere in the Caribbean Sea? In an interview Walcott burbled about the ritual aspects of Sophocles reminding him of voodoo! This is such an ancient cliché - it certainly worked 50 years ago in Orfeo Negro, (Black Orpheus) - Camus' wonderful film, setting the Orpheus legend in the Rio carnival. But what had Antigone to do with primitive ritual? As long ago as Kitto (Kitto H D F, Form and Meaning in Drama 1956), we realised that the non-burial was nothing to do with ritual, and all to to with natural human horror at a corpse being pecked at by crows and torn apart by foxes. Nowhere in Sophocles' play is the burial seen as a religious ritual, although the gods are as offended as Antigone is.

I could not entirely supress a slight smile, when the soldier, sailor and the other members of the chorus quartet were joined by a Red Indian dancer - I expected them to break into "Young man, there's no need to feel down. I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground" (YMCA by the Village People) at any moment. The urge to destroy the concept of a chorus (in Greek drama a unified body with two voices, and a leader who becomes an actor when necessary), overwhelmed Walcott, as it has so many modern directors. But surely an opera can stand to have a chorus that is a chorus? OK, so they couldn't dance (they couldn't sing much either), and their words were largely inaudible - but to have the quartet sitting on their four plush chairs, in their "our man in Havana" costumes (the female minister being particularly spectacular in her buttock-hugging gold lamé confection - a Mrs Thatcher fantasy for the most unrepentant Tory?) but largely inert seemed such a wasted opportunity.

The dance/movement feature of the ancient chorus was in fact passed to a single (excellent) male dancer, who materialised at intervals in a variety of bizarre outfits (eg the Native American costume noted above). A programme note told us he represented the "spirit of the city". He provided a much needed whiff of pantomime - needed to break the monotony, not, of course, to further the drama or help in its understanding.

The set was symmetrical, with the seal of the Democratic Republic of Thebes on the cyclorama upstage centre (a lone palm flanked by tigers' heads), and 3 flags arranged symmetrically to left and right. The four plush chairs flanked an ornate stool for the dictator, when he appeared. There was no variation of height - all were on one level, and the symmetry made it visually uninspiring.

Most bizarrely, the play opened with a ball in full swing; only Antigone, downstage right, in black, with shades, casting a damper on the party. Didn't they know there was a war on? But perhaps Walcott had in mind Baptista (although he mentioned Trujillo in his interview), as portrayed in the great ball scene in Havana just before Castro's guerillas seize power in Godfather II (if so I forgive him - though it's still otiose).

The music

I do not feel qualified to say anything technical about the music. All I can say is that I did not like it. Publicity talked about the influence of Rapso on the Trinidadian composer. (Rapso is a fairly recent development in Trinidadian popular music - supposedly a fusion of Calypso and Rap, as Soca is of Soul and Calypso). As one who has enjoyed "jumpin' up" or "winin'" to all kinds of Trini music over the years, I can safely say that Ms Le Gendre's music (she left her homeland 30 years ago) showed, to me, no discernible Caribbean qualities. The "rap" component seemed to consist of trying to fit as many syllables to the bar as possible - this did not help intelligibility. After the dance in the prologue (which I thought sounded quite pleasant) there was no further attempt to use Latin rhythms. The singers, except for Ismene, did not have voices powerful enough to be heard clearly above the orchestra, and it was a real struggle to make out Heaney's words (which were thoughtfully printed in the programme - but why not surtitles, as we had had for Agamemnon a few days before?). How refreshing it was when the messenger came to tell of the death of Antigone - he spoke! We could understand what he was saying! He conveyed emotion and actually began to involve us in the tragedy. Alas, when he'd said his piece, the singing recommenced.

At the end there was none of the applause which normally greets the finale of an opera. Some polite clapping, while the actors shuffled and bowed uneasily. I felt sorry for them, having to contribute to a doomed production. What were the laureates thinking of?

I am old enough to remember a review (in the Spectator, I think) of Anouilh's Antigone, when it was performed in London in the 1950s, which decided that "M. Anouilh has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse". A verdict I thoroughly disagreed with then, but unfortunately now horribly appropriate for Mr Walcott's attempt.