Paul O'Brien

Greek by Way of Ireland

The Irish Repertory Theatre program for The Burial at Thebes credits Seamus Heaney as the author, but the Nobel Prize-winning poet, who died in 2013, didn’t originate the story. Like many others—including Racine (Phèdre), Jean Giraudoux (Tiger at the Gates), and Jean Anouilh, Heaney was inspired to refashion G­reek drama for a modern audience. Indeed, Anouilh himself drew on the same source, Antigone, as Heaney does for The Burial at Thebes, a 2004 reworking of the third of Sophocles’ plays about Oedipus and his descendants.


The play takes place following a civil war, in which the brothers of Antigone, Eteocles and Polyneices, clashed. Heaney doesn’t delve into the source of the conflict: the brothers were to share the crown year by year, but Eteocles refused to step down when Polyneices’ turn came, and Polyneices took up arms against him. Both brothers have died in the deciding battle, and the leadership of Thebes is now in the hands of Creon, Antigone’s uncle and the brother of Jocasta—who may be remembered as both mother and grandmother to Antigone; her sister, Ismene; and their late brothers. Polyneices has been tarred as a traitor by Creon; he has declared that Eteocles will be buried as a hero, but Polyneices will be left unburied as carrion.

Heaney, who had reworked Philoctetes into a play, The Cure at Troy, in 1990, shows a keen sense of the drama in Antigone’s first words, underlining urgency and giving a streamlined sense of the conflict to come as well as the burden of the sisters’ history.

Ismene, quick, come here!
What’s to become of us?
Why are we always the ones?
There’s nothing, sister, nothing
Zeus hasn’t put us through
Just because we are who we are—
The daughters of Oedipus.

Compare that with the sedate 1962 translation by Michael Townsend:

My darling sister Ismene, we have had
A fine inheritance from Oedipus.
God has gone through the whole range of sufferings.
And piled them all on us—grief upon grief,
Humiliation upon humiliation. 

Heaney sticks with “Zeus” for the flavor of the original, rather than a Christianized “God,” and his simpler language moves more swiftly. His version of the story sounds more energetic to the modern ear (though one wishes he had avoided use of the anachronistic “beyond the pale”—it occurs not once or twice, but three times). Omitting the traditional chorus, Heaney focuses on individual personalities and equalizes their weight, especially benefiting Winsome Brown’s helplessly distraught Eurydice. 

The sisters’ dilemma is sparked by Paul O’Brien’s stern, autocratic Creon, whose edict demands death for anyone who buries Polyneices. His actions are an affront to the gods, and to Rebekah Brockman’s passionate, righteous Antigone. Katie Fabel’s Ismene is also upset but lacks the gumption to join Antigone in secretly burying their brother. To complicate matters, Antigone is betrothed to Haemon, Creon’s son (the intermarriage of the cousins in a family plagued by incest goes unremarked; after all, it’s long before blood work and DNA testing).

The cast, under the astute direction of Charlotte Moore, brings passion and fire to Heaney’s language. When Creon condemns Antigone for her actions and resists Haemon’s pleas to spare Antigone, Eurydice worries about the effect on Haemon, as well as her husband’s transgression of Greek custom. Yet Heaney’s virtue is that he simplifies as well, as in Ismene’s initial response to Antigone’s proposal: “Easy now, my sister/Think this through for a minute.” Or, also from Ismene, a passage that foregrounds a modern tension between chauvinism and feminism:

Women, defying Creon?
It’s not a woman’s place.
We’re weak where they are strong. 

Because the Irish Rep is forced to use the DR2 Theatre during renovations to its 22nd Street home, and the cramped stage means Tony Walton’s set consists of a couple raised platforms and some decorative vertical roping, the actors must sidle off awkwardly. Nonetheless, the cast is solid, with Robert Langdon Lloyd’s blind seer Tiresias a sizzling standout. Colin Lane brings comic worry to the part of the guard who has let Antigone slip by and bury Polyneices—and then redeems himself with her capture. Curiously, he and Rod Brogan as the Messenger have pronounced Irish accents, which seem to mark them as a different class from the royals; but then Ciarán Bowling’s accent as the royal heir Haemon muddies the issue. Quibbles aside, even if this version of Sophocles feels Irish only by virtue of accents of some of its cast and its author’s birth, it’s a welcome foray into seldom seen Greek drama.

Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes plays through March 6 at the DR2 Theatre (103 E. 15th St. between Union Square East and Irving Pl.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, and Friday-Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $71 and can be purchased at by calling 212-727-2737 or visiting

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Life with Father, Irish Style

Hugh Leonard’s Da is a painful coming-of-age story being given an engaging and rare revival by the Irish Repertory Theater in its temporary home at DR2 Theatre off Union Square.

Set in a rural town in Ireland, Leonard’s 1978 Tony winner deals with Charlie, a middle-aged man who has returned to his family home after the death of his father. The memories he has are painful, and it’s clear immediately in Charlotte Moore’s production that Charlie feels some relief at the recently severed tie to his father. But Da isn’t done with his son: his ghost, a boisterous and peremptory Paul O’Brien, shows up to harangue and browbeat Charlie. And Charlie, for his part, feels resentments bubble up in him once again. As the play unfolds, one learns about the origins of their friction, as well as Charlie’s adolescence and working life. He is, in fact, an adoptive son to Da and his Ma (Fiana Toibin).

Clues come early on about how difficult Charlie’s life was, as the family prepares for the arrival of a Mr. Drumm who will interview Charlie for a job. There’s a battle over the shirt that Charlie is supposed to wear. (Adam Petherbridge plays the younger Charlie with a mixture of rebellion and Catholic guilt, while Ciarán O’Reilly shines as the more confident and calmer adult observing his life.) He doesn’t want to wear the one that his mother has patched, and his resistance causes a squabble and earns him a slap. 

After Sean Gormley’s thin-lipped, priggish Mr. Drumm arrives, Da, though warned to speak minimally, launches into praise of Hitler. (Some Irishmen supported Hitler because he was at war with their historical enemy, England.) Drumm, judgmental and bloodless, has nothing but contempt for Da, and he expresses it bluntly. Drumm offers Charlie a job nonetheless, with the warning that he shouldn’t stay in it too long—a warning that Charlie, a budding writer, doesn’t heed for more than a decade. A nice irony is that Drumm, unsusceptible to sentiment, gives Charlie sounder advice than his parents offer: “You’ll amount to nothing until you learn to say no.”

Leonard’s story slips from memory to the present and back, sometimes a bit strangely: older Charlie doesn’t merely watch his younger self in scenes—they converse about what’s going on, with the older self advising the younger. O’Brien’s Da is by turns morose, cheerful, overbearing, and proud, and it’s clear he will never be a figure his son will worship. In spite of the cozy warmth suggested by James Morgan’s crockery-filled parlor, this autobiographical play is also rife with unhappiness, stupidity, and emotional abuse. 

Leonard’s rich language— “Old faces. They’ve turned up like bills you thought you’d never have to pay”—gets full weight from an excellent cast. Although men are the focus, two actresses in smaller parts make the most of their single scenes. Nicola Murphy plays Mary Tate, a reputed good-time girl that Charlie wants but who has more sweetness than he appreciates. Petherbridge is terrific in the scene, alternately bashful and on the make, and Murphy brings true poignancy to poor Mary, initially aloof, then warming to Charlie’s charms. It’s to Leonard’s credit that Charlie, his own stand-in, comes off poorly. As Da’s employer of decades, Kristin Griffith arrives late in the play to deliver a clueless, insulting pittance to the man who has served as her gardener for years, while she eagerly gathers the bounty he has cultivated. Da is ever the apologist for his poor treatment, too proud to claim more than others are willing to give him, and that gripes the older Charlie. It undoubtedly reflects Leonard’s own struggle to find confidence in himself that he is never destined to receive from either father or mother. Yet, as Charlie finally learns, "Love turned upside down is love for all that."

Performances of Da by the Irish Repertory Theatre take place through March 8 at the DR2 Theatre at 103 E. 15th St., off Union Square. Evening curtains are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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