Antigone

Sophocles, in a version, by Owen McCafferty
Prime Cut
Part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's Waterfront Hall Studio, Belfast
(2008)

Production photo by Ciaran Bagnall

Trailing clouds of glory from his award-winning Scenes From The Big Picture at London’s National Theatre, Owen McCafferty’s direction of his own version of Sophocles' Antigone with Prime Cut summoned producers from Dublin, Edinburgh and London to the Waterfront Hall Studio premiere of one of the most keenly anticipated attractions of this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

The home audience was out in force too, preparing to welcome back one of their favourite theatrical sons, the writer who’d given the city both Mojo Mickybo and that Tinderbox Theatre Company triumph, Owen’s magical interpretation of Ionesco’s The Chairs. Prime Cut too, they reminded themselves, had previously triumphed in the same venue with Michel Marc Bouchard’s Coronation Voyage, afer Trevor Griffiths’ Who Shall Be Happy, at O’Mac.

McCafferty is neither a poet nor an adept in Ancient Greek, so none were expecting a rival to Seamus Heaney’s The Burial At Thebes. Most of the author’s followers will have been too young to recall either Anouilh’s morally ambiguous 1946 translation, produced under German Occupation, nor Brecht’s rarely performed take from the same generation.

What we knew we’d get from Owen would be a treatment, perceptively written in the Ulster demotic and informed by Northern Ireland’s flirtations with opposing fascisms, where wars’ memorial ceremonies and the proper burial of the disappeared are still sores which make the headlines and rouse phone-in audiences to intemperate furies. What many were not sure of was - and they were right to worry - the author’s ability as a director.

Onto a set shaken by machine-gun fire, bare of anything bar damaged marble walls supported by contemporary scaffolding as designed by Lorna Ritchie and decorated by mutilated classical torsos brightly lit by Ciaran Bagnall, comes Walter McGonagle’s scene-stealing gravedigger, an embodiment of Sophocles' Chorus, his sweaty knowingness a creation of Shakespearean proportions, a common man who can debate, comically, ironically and pragmatically, with a king.

Soon too, he’s joined by that king, Creon, played by another practised performer, a jackbooted Ian McElhinney clothed in those other trappings of fascism, cloaks and black jackets, plus a salute of monumental absurdity. Later, another old hand will join the fray, Harry Towb’s blind ethical soothsayer, another who takes his cues from Shakespearean lore.

These three are a trio of excellence, but they make a triumph of experience of over tyros, as both of incestuous Oedipus' daughters, Katy Ducker’s wooden Antigone and Rosie McClelland’s duff Ismene, plus Conor MacNeill’s would-be comic guard, deliver performances richer in embarrassments than impact.

So Sophocles’ reasoning that human societies retain their reason only when they bury all their dead with family honour - in this case both of the Theban city’s warring brothers, Polyneices and Etéocles, Antigone’s siblings - rings poignantly true as Ulster fitfully debates the need for an Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, another other war, the war on stage, is won decisively by The Oldies over the young uns.

Thus McCaffrey’s brave interpretation of the greatest of the Theban trilogy might well be named, not Antigone, but An Old Man’s Tale. And Owen should put away his directorial ambitions and return to his keyboard.

Till November 1st

Reviewer: Ian Hill