Ever The Bridesmaid
When it comes to great women in Greek tragedy, the name Ismene doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Daughter of Oedipus, sister to Antigone, Ismene often serves as walk on colour in plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus. Yet just as Jean Rhys did with Jane Eyre’s marginalised madwoman in Wide Saragossa Sea, Colm Tóibín’s "Pale Sister" sets about reimagining Ismene as a women with much more to offer. And ultimately falls short. For despite an invested performance by Lisa Dwan, Tóibín’s one woman monologue sees Ismene remain ever the bridesmaid and never the bride despite having a lot more to say. Still coming in a distant second to her sister Antigone, even when offering her own retelling of their tragic tale.
In a relatively faithful reconstruction of Sophocles' Antigone, straying from the original in convenient rather than revelatory ways, "Pale Sister" finds Ismene recounting the tragic events after the blinded Oedipus went into exile. A battle between his two sons Eteocles and Polynices, each claiming his throne, sees both killed. Their uncle Creon, assuming the King’s mantle, decrees that Eteocles can be buried, but Polynices’ body is to be left above ground for the vultures and dogs. Antigone, refusing to comply with Creon’s edict, buries her brother Polynices and is condemned to be buried alive. When Antigone’s betrothed, Haemon, Creon’s son, sets out to rescue her, several deaths follow, prompting Ismene to a new, profound realisation. Even if it’s an insight already present, arguably, in Sophocles' original.
For those unfamiliar with Antigone, "Pale Sister’s" meandering pathways can be difficult to follow. For those with even a passing acquaintance with Antigone, Tóibín’s reimagining might seem to reimagine very little. As a woman prepared to change, finding her own fearless voice, serving as a witness to the persecution of individuals in the name of society, especially during times of war, Ismene offers far too little that's new. If Dwan makes us care in the end in an impassioned performance, sometimes overly impassioned, it’s often as a result of her strained, physical articulations which prove deeply effective. Vocally, however, it can sometimes be a different story.
From the get-go, Dwan endlessly groans in grief and distress, ranging from heightened howls to hissed whispers. While Dwan vocally modulates with rich musicality, like bands of a certain ilk, modulations seem limited to the same repeated chords, sometimes hitting the right note beautifully, other times struggling to find the right emotional pitch. Similar in ways to James F. Ingall’s overworked lights, adding mood and depth superbly at times, at others self-consciously drawing attention to themselves, drowning Dwan in a meta-theatricality unsupported by other elements onstage. Jamie Vartan’s cavernous set, along with Sinéad Diskin’s onerous sound design, reinforce a tone of self-serious severity. Ensuring if “Pale Sister” trades in trauma as tragedy, as opposed to the trauma of tragedy, or any other possible considerations, it’s played as tragedy with a capital T. Something director Carey Perloff’s ponderously plodding pace seems determined you don’t forget.
Despite an emotionally exhausting performance by Dwan, "Pale Sister" never quite gets out of its own academic head, even if Dwan manages to pack an emotional punch right at the end. Indeed, like an evangelic homily delivered to the converted, "Pale Sister’s” feels designed to appeal to the academically informed rather than the general theatre goer. Perhaps unsurprising given it arose from The Antigone Project, a course taught at Columbia University by Dwan and Tóibín. Yet even interested academics might find themselves wishing it had said and done more. With a gracious Dwan leading the audience in a rousing curtain call for the late Gay Byrne, the heads and hearts of a packed Gate Theatre were united as one. If only "Pale Sister" had consistently managed something of the same.
"Pale Sister" by Colm Tóibín, in an Audible and Gate Theatre co-production, runs at The Gate Theatre until November 9.
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.