Colm Tóibín is an ‘extraordinary’ writer of women ... ‘in the 1950s’

Lisa Dwan and Colm Tóibín discuss working together on 'Pale Sister' a new piece of theatre based on the story of Antigone

Lisa Dwan and Colm Tóibín have collaborated to produce Pale Sister. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Lisa Dwan has been “haunted by the spirit of Antigone” for more than 20 years. She first encountered the hard-edged heroine of classical myth when a teenager, aspiring to be an actress, and found herself reading Jean Anouilh’s version of the Greek story for a production in Galway.

“I was totally intrigued by her,” she recalls. “She seemed so unusual to me. When you are an 18-year-old in love with language and lights, but you also happen to possess a mind, a mouth, to find any kind of role with a bit of chutzpah, it is transformative. I was intrigued by her confidence in confronting the patriarchy, but I also discovered that she was written in a way that acted as a deterrent, to warn us what a heavy price she must pay.”

Dwan also discovered that “it was impossible for me to make her character work. At first I thought it was because I was still learning my craft or because I was  a bad actress.” However, over the years she has spent performing in Ireland, London and America, she has realised that “the very way in which Antigone was presented was to serve a particular end: putting women in their place.” When writer Colm Tóibín approached her, then, about collaborating on a piece of theatre, Dwan “knew immediately it had to be Antigone. This antagonistic tricky woman – she was the reason I became an actress.”

Dwan and Tóibín have come to Dublin to bring the culmination of that collaboration, Pale Sister, to the stage. Over tea in the bright hospitality suite of the Gate Theatre, they discuss the nature of their collaboration, which will premiere on October 31st. It began with a chance meeting at a theatre in New York, where Dwan was performing My Beckett, a self-penned adaptation of Beckett’s prose. Tóibín approached Dwan with the idea of writing something for her to perform. Neither of them anticipated the intense collaboration that would follow and occupy the best part of a working year for both of them.


They analysed Jean Anouilh's version written during the Nazi Occupation in France

As part of their preparation for what would become Pale Sister, the actor and writer taught a semester-long course at Columbia University investigating the history of Antigone from ancient to modern times. Together, with a committed group of students and a faculty of legal and classical scholars, they delved deep into the character’s many meanings and iterations.

“We had access to all the experts you could think of,” Tóibín explains. They analysed Jean Anouilh’s version written during the Nazi Occupation in France, Brecht’s tragic post-war adaptation, Athol Fugard’s retelling set in apartheid South Africa, and Kamila Shamsie’s novelisation, which reworks the myth through the lens of Muslims living in London. Not to forget, of course, the many Irish versions that were written during the Troubles, including Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes and Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act.

Indeed it was the political situation in Northern Ireland that first drew Tóibín’s attention to the myth, almost 40 years ago. “I was reading Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland,” he recalls. “It must have been around 1973, and he was writing about Antigone, using it to tease out what shape the debate in Northern Ireland was beginning to take, talking about [the violence of The Troubles] as ‘a stiff price for that handful of dust’. He was looking at Antigone as an example of the conflict between individual action and a watch-and-wait constitutional mode of change. It was basically Bernadette Devlin versus Ian Paisley.”

In every single version, the moral and rational weight leans heavily on Creon's side

The more they read, the more Dwan and Tóibín noticed a common thread linking the many and various cultural contexts in which Antigone had appeared and reappeared. As Dwan puts it: “In every single version, the moral and rational weight leans heavily on Creon’s side and Antigone is presented as an irrational idealist, a troublemaker, a fascist or a shrew.”

“People were so interested in the large political agenda,” Tóibín chimes in, “with civil strife, with war that gender comes across as appallingly unconsidered.”

Their version, they hoped, would set that right.

With the weight of so many Antigones singing in their ears, Tóibín decided to look “for a blank canvas”. Pale Sister tells Antigone’s story through her sister’s voice. “Ismene is a character that doesn’t usually get to speak much,” he explains, “sometimes not at all, so I was writing out of silence, and that was a liberating thing. Ismene is the quiet person in the corner watching everything. She is the witness.”

She is, literally, the pale sister. As Dwan sees it, Ismene’s story “is about laying something to rest: not only the body of her brother Polynices, as Antigone needed to do, but the blown-up picture of her sister. She needs to ask herself ‘what if Antigone was right?’ ”

We were looking at this woman in the wake of Emma Gonzalez and her four-minute stare

More than the shadow of 2,000 years of reinterpretation, the pair felt the pressure of “what was happening in the world” as they began their research. Dwan recounts the conspiracy of contemporary events with the zealous intensity of an Antigone herself.

“We were looking at this woman in the wake of Emma Gonzalez and her four-minute stare. In the wake of #metoo and #wakingthefeminists there were the Greta Thunbergs and the Nancy Pelosis speaking out, women who were capable of making rational argument, who couldn’t just be dismissed, like Hillary Clinton was, as ‘a nasty woman’. You just can’t get away with that anymore.”

The side of law that King Creon stands for was also more complicated by contemporary politics, she says. “It is quite clear looking around the world that just because a certain male occupies the seat of state does not make him rational or devoid of cruelty or inhumanity. That is the kernel of truth that we are working towards.”

Both Dwan and Tóibín use the plural adjective when talking about the creation of the play, but they have not always agreed on the best way of presenting their ideas. As Tóibín explains, “we would have our class together and I would go and write something that evening and send it to Lisa the next day. She would record it and send it back to me by Dropbox, and then the arguing would begin. I would tend in politics to be closer to Ismene than Antigone and Lisa would be more like Antigone. And sometimes our argument would really be about our responses to what was happening in the world as much as what was happening in what I was writing.”

On other occasions the arguments were directly related to his conceptualisation of character on the page.

“At one point I was paying too much attention to rivalry between the sisters in the form of romance,” he recalls “and Lisa was like, ‘is this really what it comes down to? Seriously, could you not think of some other plot line to make this work?’ Now that’s the kind of thing it might have taken me a whole year before realising it had to go but Lisa released me from that stupid idea in an afternoon.”

I might have been able to make demands about the character, but I wouldn't know how to make it work

“Yes,” interjects Dwan. “Colm is an extraordinary writer of women’s interior lives, but as I often pointed out to him they are mostly women of the 1950s.”

Both are also clear, however, about their separate, if overlapping, roles in the process. “I work in ideas, and that does not make for good drama,” Dwan admits. “I might have been able to make demands about the character, but I wouldn’t know how to make it work. An idea is just an idea. So we would talk and Colm would say, ‘no, we can’t just do that. I need an image’.”

“Yes,” Tóibín agrees, “an idea is really just an argument, and an argument on stage is a polemic, not a drama. It is dead.”

For his part, meanwhile, Tóibín almost giddily admits that he “knows nothing about writing for the theatre really. I don’t do stage directions. I am totally useless in a rehearsal room. It’s up to Lisa, [director] Carey Perloff and the whole team of technical experts to turn it into theatre.”

However, Pale Sister will have life long after its short run at the Gate. Amazon’s audio partner, Audible, are co-producing the venture, and will release an audio recording of the play later this year. Dwan, meanwhile, will move on to investigating a series of other classical archetypes with other high-profile writers, in similarly research-focused durational projects. Margaret Atwood will write a new Medea for her to be performed next year. And Salman Rushdie has signed on for a new Helen of Troy. For the moment, however, it is Antigone – that irrepressible, irresistibly outspoken woman – who commands Dwan and Tóibín’s shared attention.

  • Pale Sister runs at The Gate Theatre from October 31st-November 9th