Pale Sister at Gate Theatre: New version of Greek play shifts focus from heroine to bystander

Sophocles’ Antigone is the paradigmatic Greek story that reflects the struggle of an individual of conscience against the forces of a repressive state. Prior Irish versions have been set in Northern Ireland (Tom Paulin) and in Palestine (Conall Morrison).

Antigone’s insistence on burying her brother Polynices, against the orders issued by the legal authority of the state embodied by King Creon, brings two implacable wills into tragic conflict.

Colm Tóibín’s version is a one-woman telling of the story from the perspective of Antigone’s more biddable sister Ismene. It does not reflect any particular locale and speaks more generally and globally to the idea of activism and activists. It explores the effect of an individual’s heroism on their more timid colleagues.

Ismene essentially wanted a quiet life. She was willing to overlook certain behaviours of her uncle Creon and played the good niece in his house, while her sister joined her brothers in pursuing matters of state.

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Matters came to a head when Antigone refused to accept Creon’s diktat that their brother Polynices be not afforded funeral rites and his body be left to rot in the sun like a dog. Antigone scorns the compromising Ismene and defies Creon in an attempt to bury her brother.

Lisa Dwan counters her naturally heroic stage presence with a timidity in her voice, creating a shaken Ismene, who tells the story from the perspective of the aftermath.

Tóibín is a supremely confident writer who does not depend on flourishes. One of the play’s most significant repeated lines is simply: “I am not afraid.” Unadorned, the writing verges on the austere.

Director Carey Perloff, for co-producers Audible and the Gate Theatre, lets the compelling, sometimes gruesome story carry the evening. The underlying moral questions are simply laid out.

Jamie Vartan’s striking set is also austere. Great slabs of stone set at off-angles suggest a post-earthquake collapse. Lighting designer James F Ingalls makes superb use of this canvas; Dwan’s striking physicality commands the stage and could not be better lit.

Tóibín’s version demonstrates the effect of individual heroism on others, on the less naturally heroic. It describes how courage gets passed on from one person to another.

With the focus moved from the heroine to the timid onlooker, this is an activist’s version, crafted for our times. It is a rallying cry to the bystanders and to the army of compromisers. Ismene is certainly woke.

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