One Sunday at the end of April I was listening to Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC 6 Music, and there was a remarkable interview with the actor Lisa Dwan, who was talking about her role as Ismene in the recent BBC Four play Pale Sister. Written for her by Colm Toibin, the play tells the story of Antigone’s sister, the quiet one, the one who obeys Creon and would leave her brother unburied on the battle field.
As well as talking about the play and her performance – which is exceptional – she discusses the reasons for wanting to perform a character who is normally a cipher, a figure in the dark, and it was one of those moments when you go from half-listening to the bits between the music on the radio to full focus on something that you have realised is deeply important and addresses you directly.
Explaining how the play came about, Dwan started by talking about the need to revisit old stories and why, when Colm Toibin wrote to her and said ‘I’d like to write you a play’, she asked for a new version of Antigone, because she wanted to challenge the way the story had come to be understood. As she said:
“These archetypes are very much ingrained in us and passed on like trans-generational messaging, trans-generational trauma we know to be true, but maybe the biases that we harbour and tell each other and continue to help keep alive through narratives are very much in our minds… I realised in that moment that something had to be done about the narratives that we tell about women, that we have to go back and expand them, and keep challenging them and expanding them.”
More succinctly, she said, the problem was that ‘Antigone was beautiful and mad and I could no longer service a role like that’. And so she and Toibin worked on the text together to fix this.
The play that emerged was about Ismene rather than Antigone, and it is wonderful. As she says:
‘Colm’s great gift as a novelist is to favour the perspective of the quiet observer in the corner, and Ismene, the quiet, the good sister, the one who lives, was the perfect vehicle for that’.
There is something much more profound going on here than simply telling an old story from a new perspective. The choice of Ismene, the decision to present her rich complexity when it has previously been disregarded, is a political statement and an act of resistance. As Dwan said towards the end of the interview, the retelling is about :
“putting some more flesh on these archetypes for the likes of the next generation, for the likes of my daughter so when they look for role models and how to be they don’t see crazy shrill threats to society, they see valid strong valiant women.”
And she finished with one of the best explanations I’ve heard of why the arts matter beyond the sheer joy of experiencing the creative work of others:
“I want to play a part in that role for the next generation, not to simply just hand them the hashtag #MeToo but to expand the roles for women. I think we’ve a very, very important role in the arts and what we do in the arts to keep changing the narratives we tell ourselves about each other.”
This resonated very deeply with me, as I think about the world my children have grown up in and the stories they are telling for themselves. It made me think of the way Natalie Haynes gives us old stories and well-known names in new forms, or how Naomi Alderman forces us to adopt new perspectives on the nature of power, or the way that the Nigerian setting of Tade Thompson’s Wormwood Trilogy drives the story forward.
It also prompted me to reflect on my role in the world, because there is something of what Lisa Dwan is doing for stories of women that has a parallel in what many of us are trying to do for our stories of technology. We see the network, apps, and services being developed and used around the world and can no longer ignore their negative effects on people, society, and politics.
Today’s decision by Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ to renew Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook for a further period is an interesting development in an ongoing debate about how we make the network a force for good, but I think one of the deeper issues is that the people writing the code, running the companies, and selling the dreams, lack good stories about the ways these tools can be used to nurture, of what a good network might look like.
We can make it better. I want to make it better. Like Lisa Dwan I don’t just want to hand the next generation a hashtag and a broken public sphere. I want to expand our understanding of what a network that works for the good of all might look like, so we have a chance of building one.
An introduction to Ismene
Pale Sister is on BBC Four if you have access to BBC iPlayer
You can listen to Lisa Dwan on Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC 6Music