Pale Sister review – Colm Tóibín and Lisa Dwan's twist on Antigone

Gate, Dublin
The acclaimed writer’s version of the Greek tragedy focuses on her sister Ismene, with plenty of modern relevances

Colm Tóibín’s new version of the Greek tragedy Antigone draws out a secondary character from shadows and silence. The “pale sister” is Ismene (Lisa Dwan) who warns her sibling Antigone against defying the law of Thebes and its ruler, their uncle Creon.

When Antigone is condemned to death for her intransigence, Ismene tries to share her punishment. Instead, she becomes a reluctant survivor, a witness to the destruction of her cursed family, the children of Oedipus. In this 60-minute monologue directed by Carey Perloff, Ismene’s character grows from silent complicity in terrible events to the discovery of her own voice.

Designer Jamie Vartan’s geometric slabs of hewn rock create an imposing setting for the solitary figure of Ismene. Her role combines the function of the Chorus and of messengers in Greek tragedy, who describe the violent acts never depicted on stage. Whether it is due to the demands of being both witness and protagonist, while also giving voice to Antigone, Creon and his wife, Eurydice, Dwan’s insistent performance is emotionally uninvolving. Tonally repetitive from the start, it does not succeed in distinguishing between characters.

Joining a line of Irish writers’ adaptations of Antigone, such as those by Conall Morrison, Seamus Heaney and Owen McCafferty, Tóibín’s thoughtful, delicately distilled response to Sophocles investigates the roots of courage. How do some people find it within themselves to follow their individual conscience in the face of state power, or impossible odds? It is a question that is highly current, especially viewed through the eyes of a young, disempowered woman, deemed to be of no consequence. Perhaps it is also one that has deeper impact on the page than in performance.

Gate theatre, Dublin, until 9 November.


Helen Meany

The GuardianTramp

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