Seamus heaney

Rep stages Heaney’s update on ‘Antigone’

Seamus Heaney pictured in 1995 after he won the Nobel Prize. ROLLING NEWS

By Orla O'Sullivan

Charlotte Moore was expecting 20 critics, including one from The New York Times, on the night that we spoke.

It’s always a risk putting on any theatrical production, especially in these straitened times, but this one is an ancient Greek tragedy. Not your obvious crowd pleaser.

When last time we’d met, two weeks previously, Moore declared that she had never staged a play that was more difficult, yet so rewarding. “I’m on my third leading man!” she said. (The Irish Repertory Theatre has staged some 140 shows in its 26 years’ existence.)

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Now it is show time, with the first of the critics arriving ahead of this week’s official opening.

On occasions such as this Moore has been known to dissipate nervous energy by cleaning the theatre’s toilets. (The Echo neglected to clarify if this is still the case that the Rep is away from home on 22nd Street during renovations.)

“I’ve cleaned more toilets than the cleaners!” Moore said with a laugh. She being the woman for whom Tennessee Williams wrote a part, who played opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and who has met everyone from celebrities, such as Tom Hanks, to U.S. presidents. “I haven’t met Obama,” the Rep’s artistic director clarifies, not trying to be funny.

But back to the play, the ancient Greeks and ancient Egypt. Although Sophocles’s “Antigone” is regarded as a masterpiece those staging it today are typically met with the same criticism. Moore said, “It’s always the same criticism when you do a Greek drama, ‘How is this relevant?’”

What Moore hopes will distinguish this Greek tragedy is that the language of Sophocles (497-406 B.C.) was updated by Seamus Heaney in 2003, “The Burial at Thebes” being his play based on “Antigone.”

Though best known as a poet, the Nobel Laureate had adapted other plays by Sophocles.

“He brought the piece down to a level where you get it… down to people talking,” Moore said, adding that, seeing the play again and again, “I never stop hearing his voice.

“Every Irish person in this f***ing world should see this play and be proud of their country. I love, just love his plays.

The respect was mutual. Heaney was “absolutely delighted” at the prospect of the Rep producing his play. “I think he trusted us,” she said.

Heaney had enjoyed many Irish Rep productions of plays penned by his close friend, Brian Friel. (Friel, perhaps Ireland’s best-known playwright at the time of his death in October, attended St Columb's College boarding school in Derry as did Heaney later and also Grammy-winning musician Phil Coulter.)

Heaney wrote “The Burial at Thebes” for the 2004 centenary of Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey. He said he was influenced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq—in particular the argument that you are either for state security or an advocate of terrorism. With terrorism such a global talking point, there could hardly be a better time to stage it.

Moore had long had the rights to the play and had been talking to Heaney about producing it before his death in August 2013. “I thought it was an important piece and I wanted to do it at the right time,” she said.

She sees the theme as, “trying to achieve a balance between the power of the individual and the power of the state” with the story of “two teenagers madly in love” mixed in.

One of them is the heroine Antigone, who defies the Creon, King of Thebes, after he denies burial to one of her brothers, killed in battle. One killed the other, having been forced onto opposing sides of the battle.

Antigone’s stance sets in action a chain of events that can only end in destruction and Heaney, who deplored the Iraqi invasion, is said to have used his delicate touch to expose the darkness and the humanity in Sophocles's writing.

Thebes is today known as the Egyptian city of Luxor, home to The Valley of the Kings and the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Casting this play was uniquely challenging, Moore said. She auditioned an estimated 200 people for eight parts. Unusually, some, despite great credentials, including Tonys, did not last.

For these roles, an actor also needs “a beautiful voice” and “soul,” she said. Now that she had the right people, she added, “My cast, the women especially, say they don’t want to do anything else all day but rehearse.”

The scale of the Rep means this will be a more intimate production, and the set by Tony- and Oscar-winning designer Tony Walton also helps, she said.

And even the audience may be different for this production, the Rep’s first of 2016. Judging from the first few previews, Moore said, “They’re better dressed.”

“The Burial at Thebes,” by Seamus Heaney, adapted from Sophocles’ “Antigone” opens this week at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temporary residence at DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th St., off, Union Square. Directed by Charlotte Moore with Rebekah Brockman (Nettie on the Cinemax series “The Knick”) as Antigone and Paul O’Brien (previously seen in the “The Weir” and “Da”) as Creon, it runs until March 6.