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Aeschylus said his tragedies were simply crumbs from Homer’s table. Indeed the blind poet’s oral epics have been a source of inspiration ever since they were written down. The Odyssey has had everything from a Hollywood makeover with Kirk Douglas to a free translation in one day in the life of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Dublin.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novel, The Penelopiad, by comparison, is a slender take on what Aristotle called the comedy of manners. In it she assumes Penelope’s perspective, Odysseus’s spouse, left behind when he went off to the Trojan war.
The plot turns on her relationship with her 12 maids and particularly her guilt at their murder by Odysseus when he returns for consorting with his enemies in his absence. Their actions, she recalls, stem from her secretly enlisting their help in her stratagems to keep at bay the suitors who are after her hand and her husband’s kingdom.
Witty and referential, it is a fine companion to Homer and wonderfully theatrical. The maids appear in the book as if a chorus in Greek tragedy, Penelope’s voice is like a Euripides character with long self-searching monologues and there are elements of burlesque that would not be out of place in an Aristophanic comedy or satyr play that followed the tragedies in Ancient Greece’s drama festivals.
She has, in short, created an allusive collage of Greek theatre in a short story – no doubt why the RSC thought it ripe to pluck from page to stage. The result, while full of theatrical invention, commitment and structurally faithful to the original is, though, dramatically unsatisfying. It fails to sustain for the audience a meaningful relationship between Penelope and her maids to suggest her sense of loss and guilt.
Moreover, the narrative arc cannot cope with the extreme switching of styles: the maids’ chorus enters as sailors on shore leave from South Pacific one minute and then delivers something akin to an out-take from a Busby Berkley dance number complete with fluttering ostrich feather fans the next. These shifting tones are a virtue in the book but, in the theatre, are disorientating and emotionally misleading.
Director Josette Bushell-Mingo has with these surprising elements tried to embrace the novel’s spirit. Sadly though, the jerkiness is exacerbated by the constrained casting: an all-women ensemble drawn from the RSC and Canada’s National Arts Centre – a partner in the production – who, not always successfully, double in their roles to play both suitors and maids, kings and queens. That their accents, too, vacillate between RSC voice-trained tones and a rounded Canadian burr is also unsettling.
The rough storytelling style, with its use of puppetry and invitations to conjure the scene with the imagination is set in relief by some slick staging, though, aided by Rosa Maggiora’s design. The play begins in blackout with Penelope’s voice cutting through it to tell us that she is speaking from beyond the grave.
When the light shines on her in a bright red dress, she seems to float in darkness standing on a stage that seems covered in thick black oil.
It is in these scenes that Atwood’s text sings: “Since being dead,” Penny Downie’s Penelope declares, “since achieving the state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness, I’ve learned some things I’d rather not know.” The live voice alliteration is arresting.
This is much more than can be said for the crude musical score and the inconsistent delivery of songs that rupture the proceedings. The Odyssey is a patchwork of stories. The Penelopiad on stage is, sadly, just patchy and frustratingly leaves its audience teased but unmoved.
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