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Principle or pride at stake?

A scene from The Irish Repertory Theatre's production of “The Burial at Thebes” with Colin Lane as the Guard, Rebekah Brockman as Antigone, Katie Fabel as Ismene, and Paul O’Brien as Creon. PHOTO: CAROL ROSEGG

By Orla O’Sullivan

In Seamus Heaney's “The Burial at Thebes,” based on a 5th Century B.C. play, there is talk of “turf smoke.” Presumably, in adding this Irish reference to Sophocles’s “Antigone,” Heaney’s point was that the play is relevant to any place or time, as timeless as the turf fire.

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Heaney's 2003 play, now being staged by the Irish Repertory Theatre, is set in Ancient Greece.

Creon has been crowned King of Thebes after a battle in which his two nephews have killed each other. One of the twins, Polyneices was forced to defend himself against the other, Eteocles. Nonetheless, Creon has decreed that Polyneices, because he fought against Creon, is to be let rot in public, like an animal, while Eteocles will get a state funeral.

Their sister Antigone defies Creon’s order, suggesting that we should not dispense with regard for human dignity, even in times of war. “I abide by statutes utter and immutable.”

Heaney may have had more contemporary examples in mind, in the era of the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal and the use of waterboarding in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. He said his reworking of “Antigone” was influenced by the Iraqi invasion, which he deplored.

Certainly, Creon's line, "Whoever isn't for us is against us,” sounds familiar in its forced choice between state security and individual, human rights.

Not that war is the only link between ancient times and our own in these plays. Creon, the embodiment of male power, refusing to question or repent for his own behavior, has many counterparts in the financial crisis. (Creon brought to mind Bernie Madoff, who, a biographer claimed, was very slow to admit any responsibility for the many lives he ruined, even after his son committed suicide.)

Once he has decided Antigone must be suppressed, Creon refuses to change course despite the disastrous consequences of his actions.

Antigone’s stance, on the face of it, seems very noble. Yet, her own unyielding course, regardless of how it runs over her sister, her fiancé and his mother, shows her to be as destructive as Creon, in her own way.'

Her remark that a husband is replaceable could be hailed as radically feminist. Yet, the coldness that lets her place her certitudes above the fiancé who loves her can hardly be admired.

Stereotypical male versus female virtue feature often. Creon, the main agent of destruction, frequently belittles women. “No woman’s going to govern me,” he vows. Antigone is presented as a relatively masculine woman. Her hair is short and dark and she emits her words with a staccato, machine-gun like delivery.

By contrast, her sister, Ismene, has flowing blonde tresses and speaks in mellifluous tones—a most credible ancient Greek maiden, played by Katie Fabel.

“We're underlings,” Ismene tells Antigone, trying to impress on her that women, particularly, are powerless to oppose the king. Antigone dismisses Ismene as dead to her.

Ismene later reveals her strength, it could be said, while showing love and a desire for harmony to be her guiding principles.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there were more in it like Ismene than Antigone, whose motivation may be just as much about status as Creon's? (Antigone wants no further disgrace on her siblings, born of Oedipus’s incest.) As one character asserts: “The only crime is pride.”

Readers have until March 6 to decide for themselves. The production runs until then at the Rep’s temporary premises, off Union Square.

Dubliner Colin Lane stands out from a generally strong cast as wonderfully naturalistic given the inevitably challenging nature of classical language and that the characters here are more archetypes than flesh-and-blood people.

Through both Lane and the other soldier, Rod Brogan, the first weak, but sympathetic, the other a slippery careerist, Charlotte Moore’s direction underscores how fickle is the public.

And Tony Walton’s set with its hint of the mob below (notably contemporary faces low down on the backdrop) echo that.

“The Burial at Thebes,” by Seamus Heaney, adapted from Sophocles’ “Antigone” is being staged by The Irish Repertory Theatre, at DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15 St., until March 6. Charlotte Moore directs Ciarán Bowling (Haemon); Rebekah Brockman (Antigone); Rod Brogan; Winsome Brown (Eurydice); Katie Fabel; Colin Lane; Robert Langdon Lloyd (Tiresias), and Paul O’Brien (Creon).