The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, based on Atwood’s novel of the same name, is a feminist retelling of The Odyssey, from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife and her twelve maidens. Directed by Frederique Michel, this stage interpretation of Atwood’s book takes full advantage of the traditional Greek chorus, bringing together an ensemble cast and creating a strong reflection on the well-known and celebrated myth.
The play opens with haunting bells and Penelope, alone, walking onto the stage. The action takes place in Hades and Penelope is taking the opportunity to tell her side of the Odyssey story, but it is of course difficult to overwrite an established myth. Her maidens appear on the stage, with their arms tied while they laugh hysterically.
Penelope begins to tell the story of her life, beginning with her father throwing her into the sea where she is rescued by ducks, explaining the origin of her name which comes from a Greek term for a type of waterfowl. The play prevents the complications of translation by giving Penelope the nickname “Duckie” which is used at frequent intervals throughout the piece. Following her near death experience, Penelope feels like she lives under constant threat, and her interrupting maids enhance this feeling of paranoia, which is particularly heightened by their petulance.
A younger Penelope is then dressed in a wedding gown as she watches several potential suitors race for her hand. She spots Odysseus, who is boasting of both her beauty and his own prowess and quietly desires that he is triumphant, despite the women around her, including her cousin, the famously beautiful Helen of Troy, mocking her with horror stories of what her wedding night will entail. These themes of jealousy and isolation continue early into Penelope’s marriage, foreshadowing her eventual long wait for the return of her husband.
Reflections between the women create a sense of overlap and common ground and the use of projections showing an alternative angle of the performers’ faces create the illusion of another point of view which enhances the emotional feeling in the piece. The ships featured in the story are also very well created, with the performers themselves uniting to create the shape of the boat, complete with the figureheads famous in Greek mythology.
The visual quality of the recording is excellent, but there is some echoing on the audio which is quite severe in places making some small sections inaudible. This is particularly a pity as much of the piece is told using rap and song, but luckily for the most part these interludes are of good quality. The nursery rhyme style song mocking Telemachus over his father’s failure to return is a particular highlight which also serves to highlight the pathetic elements if Telemachus’ personality.
The Penelopiad is an interesting and powerful reinterpretation of an ancient myth, giving voice to the women whose stories were lost in a half-woven shroud. The cast’s performances are excellent and the chemistry between the older and younger Penelopes is spot on. The play does a brilliant job of showing the increasing pressure Penelope is subjected to and the piece is an excellent illustration of hopelessness and its impact on the loss of faith. Penelope learns the devastating lesson that nothing built on lies can stand and has an eternity of being repeatedly abandoned to reflect on that agonising lesson. Helen of Troy may have had the face that launched a thousand ships, but it was Penelope who launched the flight of a dozen swans.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is being streamed by Ukraine Fringe until 3rd September 2023 and is available to watch here https://www.scenesaver.co.uk/production/the-penelopiad-by-margaret-atwood/
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 27th August 2023
North West End UK Rating: