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.
BBC iPlayer Spring 2021
offer new insights into life, some offer escape and entertainment, some
are showcases for the talents of performers.
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
reminder: Antigone disobeys a king's edict by burying her supposedly
traitorous brother, leading to a string of further deaths.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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