Heaney's The Cure at Troy: The Wound That Does Not Heal

The Cure at Troy
by Seamus Heaney
directed by Francis Watson
Presented by Company Colony
The Link

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego

Since 1984 we have seen ten adaptations of Greek tragedy by six Irish poets: Tom Paulin's The Riot Act (1984), based on Sophocles' Antigone; Seize the Fire (1989), based on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; Aidan Carl Mathews' Antigone (1984), and Trojans (1994) based on Euripides' Trojan Women; Brendan Kennelly's Antigone (1985), Medea (1991), and The Trojan Women (1993); Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy (1990), based on Sophocles' Philoctetes; Desmond Egan's Medea (1991: simply a translation); and Derek Mahon's The Bacchae (1991). It is noteworthy that three of these plays are based on Antigone, two on Medea, two on Trojan Women and none on Oedipus Tyrannos: they are plays that focus on human rights more than on fate and identity. All deal with the Irish question.

This production of Seamus Heaney's play, the second in London(the Field Day Theatre Company, with which Seamus Heaney was associated,staged the same play in late 1993 early 1994 at the Tricylcle Theatre in Kilburn)took place in summer of 1996. It was done at the Link by Company Colony under the direction of Francis Watson. There were six in the cast, five women and one man. They were all the chorus at first, and then differentiated themselves into Chorus, Odysseus, Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, Hercules and Merchant as needed. The acting was amateurish, except in the case of Sarah D'Arcy, who gave a moving performance as Philoctetes. She, however, was misdirected, and in the acoustically challenged theatre the reverberations of her all too frequent screams caused as much painfor the audience as Philoctetes was suffering.

The stage seemed to suffer from a low budget, which need not be a drawback if there is imagination to compensate, but that was lacking here. The floor was part wood, part smooth-surfaced, and covered in a fine layer of sand. Three white panels with gray shadows on them (suggesting abstract mountains?) were placed at three corners of the stage. The filthy ragged costumes and smudged faces made the travellers appear even more destitute than the castaway Philoctetes. (Couldn't they have found the same springs he had, and washed?) The audience sat in two rows on each side of the rectangular stage, and there were only about forty seats. The lighting was crude, with the instruments visible to the audience; the sound system delivered vague suggestions of music from time to time, but most of it was as unintelligible as much of the dialogue. Even the poor sound qualitycould not disguise the Irish music at the end of the play. In addition to the bad acoustics, there were unfortunate cuts from Heaney's text and some clumsy additions.The merchant was given an Irish accent for no accountable reason, though the other members of the cast retained their native London intonation. Some actors knew their lines, and some did not, which resulted in a lot of improvisation. The program (mercifully?) did not name the author.

Despite these infelicities, the brilliance of the poet came through in the words one could hear, and through the modern poet's words we heard the older genius, Sophocles. Heaney thoroughly deserved the Nobel prize he won, and his language, even muffled and misquoted,charmed the ear.

Heaney shows how Philoctetes can resemble Northern Ireland by being obsessed with a wound, and the breakdown in the peace talks echoes poignantly in his text. He has added words which refer to Northern Ireland's dilemma with hurts on both sides that preclude communication. But there is hope at the end: '...Once in a lifetime/ The longed for tidal wave /Of justice can rise up /And hope and history rhyme.' Philoctetes is made to see the truth of his needed mission at Troy by a god, Hercules, who overcomes his doubts. Would that there were a deus ex machina who could take over the peace process now, for short of that one sees very little hope. The real world clashes harshly with this poem to peace.

One has to applaud the genius who wrote this adaptation by weaving modern heartache into ancient tragedy, and also the people who had the vision to perform it. Perhaps expertise will come to them with time; at least they had good taste in their choice of play.

Marianne Mc Donald
University of California, San Diego