Irish author Colm Tóibín tells Alex Clark about swapping novels for plays, his writing process with Lisa Dwan on Pale Sister, why Sophocles’ Antigone story is still relevant today and why directors have to be very talented
Just before the final performance of Pale Sister, the play he wrote for and with actor Lisa Dwan premiering at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, Colm Tóibín tells me about “the theatre thing”. He says: “It came first as just the whim of saying yes, which some writers are no good at, you know. They just say no.”
But Tóibín – acclaimed novelist, short-story writer, essayist, critic and raconteur – is the embodiment of a kind of great assent to the universe: curious, engaged, probing, witty, generous. Currently, he is in town not only for Pale Sister, but as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, in which he has worked as guide to Irish writer Colin Barrett.
Tóibín said his first theatrical “yes” when he dramatised the relationship between WB Yeats and Lady Gregory for the centenary of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2004; his second, the play The Testament of Mary, on which he worked with director Garry Hynes and actor Marie Mullen. And now comes Pale Sister, his response to Sophocles, in which Dwan tells the story of Ismene, daughter and half-sister of Oedipus and sister of Antigone; the sister who lives in shadow, a foil to Antigone’s rage-filled defiance of the laws of state and family.
Ismene is a bravura Tóibín character: as in his novels The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night and Nora Webster, the person who suddenly finds themselves subject to immense pressures and forced into the spotlight. “You take a story in which somebody speaks all the time; in the case of Testament of Mary it was Jesus,” he explains. “The theatrical experience will be: this person will only speak now, if you miss this, you will not hear it again. The illusion’s created on the stage: don’t miss this.”
Every version of Antigone responds to its own moment. It’s remarkable to watch
The project began when Dwan was writer in residence at Columbia University, where Tóibín is a professor of the humanities. When the dean asked him if he thought he could work with her, Tóibín sent back a two-page response on “the Antigone project”, an interdisciplinary course in which students studied versions from Bertolt Brecht to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In his words: “Every version of Antigone responds to its own moment, and it’s remarkable to watch. You cannot write a neutral version of the play.”
As Pale Sister began to take shape, Tóibín would write a scene, send it to Dwan, and she would send a recording via Dropbox, and the conversation would begin. “I wouldn’t like to tell you the hours, the arguments, the phone calls, for every line of that debate,” he says.
Tóibín had seen Dwan perform her one-woman Beckett show, No’s Knife, and “realised she had a funny mixture in her of strength, that you could represent something very powerful, and also a sort of thing that lighting could capture, of being almost afraid”.
What gave the experience of plunging into the world of Sophocles an extra charge was what was happening in the 21st century: the seismic revelations that began the #MeToo movement. At the same time, Columbia University was experiencing its own sexual harassment protests.
At the first class in Columbia, Tóibín told students: “In case you think we’re looking at something that’s 2,500 years old for its own sake, you remember that we’re on a campus where there’s a young woman moving around, and past us, and all around us, with a mattress on her back, as a personal protest against the way she feels she was mistreated in the aftermath of what she alleges was rape. And we see her and that image of the lone figure, saying you are wrong and I will defy you by my body – this is where we are, this is a contemporary argument.”
Coming to theatre work later on in his writing career, what was his personal relationship with drama? As fans of his work will know, Tóibín grew up in the comparatively small town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford: “Every town would have amateur drama and every town would also have one or two people who everyone would always say. They could have been famous actors if only they had not stayed in the town, or had to run a family, you know, people who were considered major actors.
“So all of that is there, but I suppose the biggest thing was coming to Dublin. There were eye-opening productions at both the Abbey and the Gate, there were things you wouldn’t believe how good they were, and then you realised something happened, and a whole sort of new writing began.”
Leading that wave were Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Frank McGuinness, among many others. They included novelist Sebastian Barry, whose play Prayers of Sherkin, which tells the story of a religious sect living on an island, Tóibín remembers seeing at the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre at around the time Mary Robinson was elected Ireland’s president. A girl wants to escape to the mainland and asks the ferryman to take her; Tóibín recalls presuming that “since it’s an Irish play, we’re going to now watch her being trapped by them. I’m not making this up, but the ferryman says: ‘I will.’ And the theatre… this has not happened before. Everybody gets really emotional. They’re letting her go. We’re not going to do the cliché of Irish drama.” He pauses. “Fuck.”
Does that sense of escape, exile and duty somehow link the Irish imagination to that of the Greek tragedians? “At the turn of the 20th century, it became really useful to suggest that if the British were Romans, we were Greek,” he replies. “In that funny cultural war that Yeats and Lady Gregory began to build against an Empire, with all its soldiers and buildings, that somehow or other the Irish were involved in some different sort of enterprise. So there’s a moment when Lady Gregory is at a dinner and someone says: ‘Why are you learning Irish? The peasants speak it in the fields.’ And she says: ‘You don’t understand that the connection of the Irish they speak and the Irish of the legends and manuscripts and the great stories is the same as the connection between modern Greek and ancient Greek.’”
For a writer who, despite an effervescent and gregarious personality, spends a great deal of time alone in a room writing novels, what has working in a theatrical team felt like? He answers that the most fun a writer can have is sitting in the bar across the road from the theatre waiting for the actors to come in post-performance so you can buy them a drink; in particular he recalls the joy of sitting in open-air bars in Barcelona with Blanca Portillo, the Spanish actor who has mounted productions of his work.
But he is not without a humorous and slightly waspish take on the world of theatre production: “There’s a lot of struggling because you have not just actors, who are always a delight, but directors who have this strange version of themselves – that they somehow or other have a vision equal to yours and that they’re auteurs. And it’s never quite clear what it is they do unless they do it very, very well, and then it becomes abundantly clear how talented they are. But sometimes they’re just going through the motions of being bossy.”
Colm Tóibín and Colin Barrett will present their work in February 2020 at the Rolex Arts Weekend in Cape Town where an adapted extract from Barrett’s book The English Brothers will be performed: rolexmentorprotege.com