In the interest of full disclosure, before I begin this review I acknowledge that Colm Toibin is one of my favourite writers. I’ve read all his fiction – in novel and short story form; as well as most of his non-fiction and travel writing. His fiction tends to be sparse in style, but written in such a manner that there are orchestras playing between the lines. When I heard that he was writing a play for the Gate Theatre, I immediately booked a ticket.
‘Pale Sister’ is a collaboration between Toibin and Lisa Dwan – who plays the ‘pale sister’ of the title – Ismene, the younger sister of Antigone. The play is an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles. In this version, the story of the civil war of Thebes and the devastating impact it has on the royal family is told through the voice of the quiet sister, who rarely speaks in the original play.
The brothers Eteocles and Polynices have died on opposing sides in battle. Their uncle Creon assumes the throne and decides that Eteocles needs to be honoured; while Polynices be left to rot on the road, and consumed by vultures as a warning. Antigone will not countenance her brother being dishonoured in this way. She confronts the king. I won’t spoil the outcome, but as it’s a Greek tragedy, I can safely reveal there will be death and suffering and pain. And plenty of it.
Traditionally Antigone has been portrayed as impetuous; irrational; idealistic and troublemaking. In this version through the eyes of her sister she is seen as noble; loyal; brave and resolute. Her love for her family is more powerful than her dedication to duty.
Dwan gives a spectacular performance in this one woman show, commanding the stage with her voice and physical movement. I was captivated throughout the seventy minute duration. She gives voice to the quiet observer that is Ismene, in a very powerful portrayal. It’s a remarkable display – so much so that I barely noticed the Gate’s notoriously uncomfortable seats while watching it.
Knowledge of the ancient Greek tragedies is not needed – in any case these epics are the building blocks for all subsequent fiction so it’s engaging to an audience.
‘Pale sister’ runs until Saturday 9th November at 7.30pm in the Gate Theatre.