Aleks Sierz previews a translation of a Greek tragedy with contemporary resonances
In Sophocles's ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. When her uncle, the ruler Creon, forbids her from burying the body of her brother, Polyneices, who has rebelled against his authority, Antigone defies him. But although she justifies her actions by invoking the gods, Creon is unmoved: Antigone must die.
The Burial at Thebes - a translation of Antigone by Nobel prize-winner Seamus Heaney - is directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, who says: "Family legend has it that when my mum staged a version of Antigone at Oxford University, Dudley Moore played the first guard and interrupted rehearsals by playing jazz piano."
She chose Heaney's translation because "it feels epic and classical. It's very faithful to the original and it's contemporary without being crass: you never have to ask, 'Why doesn't Creon ring Antigone on her mobile?' Yet it feels accessible and modern to the ear. It's really spare and there's no fat on it."
Pitman-Wallace had tea with Heaney in Dublin, "and he said that, because he's a poet, what interested him in the piece was the versification. And he found three ways of conveying the music of the text."
Antigone and her sister, for example, "talk in three-beat lines, which are emotionally charged, sometimes cruel, and based on a Gaelic lament. Then there's blank verse, iambic pentameter for Creon, which gives him a formal Shakespearean authority. And the third is the language of the chorus, which comes from Beowulf, and is based on Heaney's memory of his father's Irish relatives talking at family gatherings."
When Heaney wrote his version, says Pitman-Wallace, "the Iraq war was starting so there are occasional echoes of George Bush in the text, such as Creon's 'Whoever isn't for us Is against us'."
But for her the image of the unburied brother is more reminiscent of recent events, such as the dead lying in the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She doesn't want to tie her interpretation too closely to current affairs and points out that the play has had many different guises, with, for example, Nelson Mandela playing Creon when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. She stresses the play's relevance to teenagers, and emphasises its idea of young people who confront authority head-on.
"One of the images I had in mind was school girls protesting to Tony Blair against the war in Iraq - the idea of young people saying: 'Not in our name.' It's the clash of generations."