If there is one benefit from the almost year-long closure of theatres, it is the fact that other artforms have extended the hand of friendship and support. The BBC’s Lights Up season, which comprises 18 new theatrical works for radio and television, is an admirable case in point. Yet whether starting the broadcast segment of Lights Up with author Colm Tóibín’s new version of the Greek tragedy Antigone was the wisest choice must be open to debate.
One suspects that this will not be the programme to boost BBC Four’s flagging ratings. Greek tragedy is notoriously lean and unflabby and even the Sophocles original could do with a ‘Previously on Antigone’ montage at the start. A few brief lines of backstory flash up at the start of Trevor Nunn’s spare production and then we are straight into not the beginning but the end of the story, whether or not we’re entirely clear on who Polynices and Eteocles were (Antigone’s brothers) or why they were locked in such bloody combat in the first place.
Tóibín’s nifty spin is to give us the narrative from the perspective of Ismene (Lisa Dwan), Antigone’s ‘pale sister, the witness’.
While Antigone herself represents one of the earliest examples of a woman doing her utmost to sock it to the patriarchy, due to her refusal to adhere to King Creon’s command that one of her brothers should lie unburied after his death in battle, Ismene is traditionally cowed and docile. By allowing Ismene her own voice and stage, Tóibín permits her to build strength up to a gloriously defiant ending.
Dwan, an acclaimed interpreter of the solo work of Samuel Beckett, creates an ethereal and intoxicating atmosphere on the plain black stage and Nunn gives us multiple close-ups of her wide, expressive eyes.
The most insightful aspect of this retelling is the backstory of bloodlust that is afforded to Creon (Antigone and Ismene’s uncle, keep up). Yet such brutality, Dwan gives us to understand, is by no means a sign of male strength, but rather of a power-crazed man who will set in motion the destruction of his entire family.
It’s not Creon who ended up with a play named after him and after 2,500 years in the shadows, it is refreshing to hear properly from Ismene at last.
Pale Sister is available on BBC iPlayer