Audio Review: Pale Sister, Audible ★★☆☆☆

by Jim Keaveney

Colm Tóibín is better known for his novels depicting life in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century than his playwriting, despite having gained a Tony Award nomination in 2013 for The Testament of Mary, which featured Fiona Shaw as Mary, mother of Jesus. Here he turns his sights from Christianity to Greek Mythology with the story of Ismene, the titular ‘pale sister’, played by Lisa Dwan.

There are immediate parallels between The Testament of Mary and Pale Sister; Mary steps out from the shadow of her more famous relative to tell her side of the story, as does Ismene here, giving us her account of the events surrounding the tragedy of Antigone, her more famous sister, and her defiance of the king as pressures mount on Ismene herself to act to vindicate her sister.

Lisa Dwan in Pale Sister. Photograph: Bríd O'Donovan
Written by Tóibín for Dwan, an actress famed for her depictions of the work of Samuel Beckett, the monologue does not sit easily with her vocal talents. There is something of Beckett’s Footfalls in the opening moments as Antigone comes to Ismene, but from there Dwan’s performance falters. Whilst the character supposedly comes from silence to discovering her own voice, Dwan immediately ramps up the pitch and sticks with an almost-monotonous delivery that fails to deliver on the subtlety of the character. There are Beckett pieces where this works, but it doesn’t here. Attempts to give voice to a cast of characters, including Antigone, Creone, Eurydice and Haemon, also fall flat. 

Dawn’s performance is not helped by Tóibín’s text which fails to make clear the distinction between characters or the relationship between them to anyone not already familiar with the story of Antigone to the extent that might be expected of a spoken word piece. It is a key failing of the production and one that Carey Perloff’s direction could have resolved. However, instead of slowing the pace and drawing our distinctions between the cast of characters, Perloff allows Dwan to speed through the text at pace without allowing the audience to get a foothold on the who's-who.

Lisa Dwan in Pale Sister. Photograph: Bríd O'Donovan
This is one of three mediums in which Tóibín and Dwan's collaboration has appeared; this Audible version, the in-person production at the Gate Theatre in Dublin on which it is based, and a filmed BBC 4 version. The latter, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, opens with a few lines of context appearing on the screen before Dwan appears in an attempt to establish the background of what is a complex story. That goes some way to alleviating the issue for the screen version but overall it feels that Pale Sister would have been better delivered on paper, as with Tóibín’s more celebrated works.

Pale Sister is available on Audible now.

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim

What the critics made of the original Gate Theatre production:

Irish Times ★★☆☆☆

Seeking to share the fatal punishment of her sister, Ismene was condemned to live instead. That's how Tóibín's character sees herself: the guilty, dutiful survivor. "I alone can speak," says Lisa Dwan, negotiating the angular slabs of what may be a tomb, a cave, or both. "I alone, the pale sister. The witness."
Pale. Quiet. Dull. These are not qualities that come naturally to Dwan, the actor feted for her Beckettian solo work, who stayed in close consultation with Tóibín during the play’s writing at Columbia University. Nor do they seem like promising character notes for a protagonist elevated from the role of bystander.

But there is a subtlety in Tóibín’s text, careful in its presentation of limpid, marginalised perspectives, its depiction of brittle, petty politics, the awesome dawning of seditious thought, that seems to elude Dwan in performance. The lines reach the ear with automatic, slalom-pole emphases, almost every sentence pivoting from growl to trill, irrespective of character or circumstance.

The Guardian ★★★☆☆

"[Dawn's] 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."

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