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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Pale Sister
BBC iPlayer   Spring 2021

Some plays offer new insights into life, some offer escape and entertainment, some are showcases for the talents of performers.

Colm Toibin's retelling of the Antigone story is entirely of the third sort, and is best appreciated for the opportunity to watch actor Lisa Dwan in almost continuous close-up.

(Quick reminder: Antigone disobeys a king's edict by burying her supposedly traitorous brother, leading to a string of further deaths.)

Toibin's narrative adds very little that isn't already in Sophocles's original, and has less analysis and commentary than Jean Anouilh's version. His one innovation is to have Antigone's sister Ismene (a very minor figure in the original) tell the story, so that the focus shifts a little, to what it was like to witness the tragedy.

And, as a solo show, it is Lisa Dwan's performance as the witness-reporter that absolutely dominates the 75 minutes.

Those who have seen Dwan onstage in London she has appeared in several Beckett plays know that her special brilliance is as a minimalist, communicating much through small and subtle effects.

The Pale Sister allows her a bravura display of a certain kind of acting. Hers is not a performance caught by a camera, but a performance to the camera.

More than 90% of what we see is her looking directly at the camera, frequently in extreme close-up, so our dominant impression is of the fierce stare of her large unblinking eyes.

Dwan does the most remarkable things with tiny and subtle variations in her stare, signalling determination, anger, despair and other emotions without seeming to do anything at all.

The script very rarely has her playing or quoting any other characters, but when she speaks of Antigone or Creon or anyone else her face takes on just the hint of madness or cruelty or whatever that character's keynote is.

(One very short sequence a mistake, I think, because it reduces things to gimmickry has a split screen let her play both Ismene and Antigone in conversation.)

If Dwan does much of her acting with her eyes, she also uses her body to powerful effect. Dressed in a plain white shift in a featureless black space, she seems to glow with the fervour of needing to tell her story.

Her most recurring pose is leaning forward, one arm outstretched toward the camera, straining to reach and touch us. When her performance is not entirely in her face and eyes, it is in the almost balletic vocabulary of her body, again played entirely to the camera rather than merely being observed by it.

While director Trevor Nunn deserves credit for helping Dwan shape this performance, there is no doubt that hers is the instigating and driving force behind it. Script and performance grew out of a residency Dwan and Toibin had at an American university, and she is credited as producer.

The Pale Sister was recorded for showing on BBC4 and is available on iPlayer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Pale Sister - BBC 2021