The staging is decent, if not that original. The wall that forms the constant backdrop is pitted and holed – a constant reminder of the war that has ended as the play begins, the war which has started all the trouble by putting a vengeful king in power and leaving the violated body of his enemy outside the city gates. It’s a nice touch, but in general what we got was standard-issue Greek drama kit – stark and empty stage, bare feet, people adopting oddly contorted poses and so on.
It’s not clear whether Heaney was involved in arranging the chorus, but if he was it’s one of his few missteps. It’s always hard to know what to do with this strangest aspect of ancient drama, but choreographing dance routines for them and setting their lines to slightly clumsy folk songs doesn’t seem to be the right answer. However well these are performed – and, to be fair, they are performed well – on a nearly bare stage, in togas and grey beards, that sort of thing will tend to have the whiff of Python about it. There are some weak performances – Abby Taylor’s wavering voice and high-speed delivery as Antigone undermines her character’s dignity at every turn – and some very strong ones. In particular, Paul Bentall seems to have thought carefully about making a modern, believable character out of the (by our standards) completely irrational King Creon.
Greek dramas are difficult. Narrated offstage action, weirdly sketchy characters and an utterly foreign psychology can alienate the viewer no matter how good the translation. In the end, however, this one convinces. One can never be absolutely sure how something like this was originally received, but there is an authentic feel to the way the story is handled here: partially a spectacle, partially a philosophy lesson and partially an act of civic catharsis.