Seamus Heaney tackles Sophocles at the Seattle Rep

The production opens with a stunning scene, but there are a few fatal mistakes in this play about fate and war.
Crosscut archive image.

The lunar-like landscape of <i>The Cure at Troy</i>. Shown are Seth Numrich as Neoptolemus (left) and Boris McGiver as Philoctetes. (Chris Bennion)

The production opens with a stunning scene, but there are a few fatal mistakes in this play about fate and war.

The classics — to paraphrase Ezra Pound's famous formula — are "news that stays news." That sensibility infuses Irish poet Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, a robust reworking of Sophocles' tragedy Philoctetes into a play in English verse. A striking passage for the chorus inserted toward the end of the play (not in the original Sophocles but fitting in seamlessly with the context) has even been pressed into service as a mineable source of quotes by newsmakers of today.

Finding echoes of the figures of Greek tragedy in contemporary events is all too easy. In 1990, when Heaney first wrote The Cure at Troy to be staged at the Field Day Theatre in Derry, Ireland, his version became immediately associated with the ongoing struggles in Northern Ireland. And for audiences today, the play's setting amid the bitterness and ambiguity of a seemingly endless war is likely to trigger at least a passing thought of the War in Iraq. The ancient tragedians themselves were hardly writing in a vacuum about "the human condition" when they adapted the stories from Homeric myth for contemporary Athenian spectators.

The hard thing is to translate Sophocles' penetrating vision — psychological and moral — in a way that conveys its vibrant urgency to today's audience. Nobel laureate Heaney's lean, unfussy, colloquial but highly charged poetry manages this with a down-to-earth assurance. He seems at once oracular and folklike, writing of characters who are "shining with self-regard like polished stones."

But translating all this effectively to the stage poses challenges that director Tina Landau fails to master in the new production (and Seattle premiere) which opened Wednesday night at the Seattle Rep. Landau is a vivid, smart director — she made an indelible impression a few years ago with her engaging revival of Saroyan's The Time of Your Life at the Rep — so I was especially surprised by how flat the production falls.

Cure follows Sophocles' play from 409 B.C.E. quite faithfully, itself drawn from the epics (Homer's and others'' recounting the Trojan War (Aeschylus and Euripides each wrote a version of Philoctetes as well, but neither has survived). Here's the backdrop to what happens: When the Greeks first sailed out to make war with Troy, Philoctetes was in the original band. But along the way his foot got bitten by a snake, leaving an ulcerous, foul-smelling wound that wouldn't heal, disgusting his comrades. Odysseus convinced the rest of the crew to desert him on the island of Lemnos before heading on to Troy.

The play revolves around the re-encounter between Philoctetes and the Greeks, who are now his mortal enemies for having abandoned him. The war has dragged on for ten years, and the stalemate, according to a prophecy that has reached the Greeks, can be broken only by retrieving the magic bow and arrows — gifts of the dying Hercules — which are safeguarded by Philoctetes. Odysseus pragmatically devises a plan to disarm the dangerous archer: He sends Achilles' son Neoptolemus to win the confidence of Philoctetes (since Neoptolemus was too young to sail with the original crew, he doesn't share their guilt in Philoctetes' eyes). The bulk of the play details the effect Neoptolemus and Philoctetes have on each other, with intervening commentary by the chorus. Eventually Hercules himself appears to persuade Philoctetes of his duty to follow his fate, and he sets sail with the others for Troy.

The production's first (and to my mind fatal) mistake is to invent an ongoing musical role for the ever-present chorus (Guy Adkins, Ben Gonio, and Jon Michael Hill). From the start, you get the sense of a that's-the-way-the-Greeks-did-it attempt at bogus authenticity. It might even have worked with a more competent score. But Josh Schmidt's mediocre, Broadway-style recitative came perilously close to making me think the show should be retitled Philoctetes! The Musical. At one point he has lead chorister Guy Adkins strum guitar accompaniment while warbling such lines as "What did he ever do/To be cursed with his abscess" (with, it must be admitted, quite a lovely voice).

Still, after the choral prologue, the play begins with a stunning image. Odysseus (Hans Altwies) and Neoptolemus (Seth Numrich) descend a long plank of metal scaffolding into pitch blackness, revealing uncertain shapes with their flashlights. The suspense is palpable and sharp but also mysterious; it's as if we're setting out on a sci-fi expedition. Harsh lights (designed for maximal intensity of contrast by Scott Zielinski) snap on to reveal the rugged terrain of Lemnos. In Blythe Quinlan's arresting set, it resembles a lunar wasteland, centered around a volcanic hump (you wonder if regular sessions at REI were required for the actors to negotiate this steep terrain so nimbly). The landscape is a character in its own right, a powerful image for the wild, animal-like rage to which the once-noble Philoctetes (Boris McGiver) has been reduced.

But the intensity of that attention-grabbing opening quickly dissipates and is rarely recaptured. Landau's apparent anxiety at making these characters come to life on stage leads to a second overarching mistake, which is one of tone — and of failing to trust the language. The actors frequently approach Heaney's poetry with a kind of casual faux naturalism so that crucial sequences fail to register.

McGiver, for example, delivers what should be a powerfully Lear-like rant when Philoctetes realizes he's been tricked as just another variant on his ongoing self-pity. The wounded warrior's extreme mood changes are at the moral center of the play, but McGiver brings more conviction to his physical embodiment of pain — and the role's a highly challenging one in this regard — than to his emotional anguish and ultimate enlightenment.

But he has little to play off in Numrich's lightweight Neoptolemus. His leading questions as he attempts to win Philoctetes over have an unintentionally comic tone, while his own change of heart after renouncing Odysseus's duplicity — one of the play's pivotal moments — rings hollow. Altwies brings an easy-to-hate arrogance to Odysseus but not much in the way of ambiguity. The trickster after all is the one who advocates the principle that storytelling — art itself — matters over truth: "And tell the story so as just to suit them" he advises Neoptolemus.

Yet Landau doesn't seem interested in exploiting the tragedy's inherent theatricality. Sophocles' characters are self-conscious about their role in history (read "fate") — a theme repeatedly harped on in the play. And false roles are also deliberately assumed before Philoctetes is finally able to see through the illusions (including his own illusion of vengeance). If anything, that's one of the "modern" aspects of Sophocles that should hit home with a contemporary audience. But like much else in this production, it's lost in translation.


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