Pale Sister

Colm Tóibín
BBC Four

Lisa Dwan Credit: BBC

As part of its Lights Up Season, the BBC has commissioned a dream team from across the generations to reimagine a Greek classic.

How could anyone argue with a fantasy combination that is led by Sophocles, who wrote Antigone the play on which it is based, supported by writer / adapter Colm Tóibín, director Sir Trevor Nunn and producer / performer Lisa Dwan?

Rather than tell the story straight but in slightly different language, Tóibín has chosen to take a different approach, viewing the tragedy through the eyes of the protagonist’s usually passive sister, Ismene.

She is brought to life in a solo tour de force by Irish actress Lisa Dwan. For 75 gripping minutes, the performer grips the attention while unfolding a horror story of familial strife filled with blood and gore.

Wearing a simple long white dress that could almost be a nightdress and playing in a blank black box, Miss Dwan embodies her character and uses every trick in the acting book to express deep emotion, often in painful close-up.

The story that she tells should be familiar. Following a battle to the death between their two brothers, the women’s uncle King Creon refuses to allow the body of Polynices to be buried. Swamped by grief, Antigone refuses to bow to pressure, eager to bury her brother regardless of the political or personal damage this will cause.

The verbal and psychological battle is told from Ismene’s viewpoint but allows for those of other interested parties including King Creon, his wife Euridyce and son Haimon. The tale is a true tragedy in the classical sense, as well as the modern, with nobody coming out a winner at the end of a gruelling evening.

At times during this production, Sir Trevor Nunn can be an overly intrusive director, with lighting changes and swift zooms that draw attention away from the drama, even when they accentuate the efforts of the star.

Viewers can decide for themselves whether there was a need for a new version of such a familiar story. Colm Tóibín, primarily known as a novelist, writes well but the main attraction is undoubtedly an outstanding performance from Lisa Dwan, which will long live in the memory.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher