The Penelopiad – August 2007 (1)


By: Margaret Atwood

Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st August 2007

This was an absolutely fantastic theatrical experience. From the moment the lights dimmed to blackout, till the bows at the end, I was totally spellbound by the sheer power and energy of this production. It was at times disturbing, moving, scary and very very funny, and not many plays, never mind productions, can do all that in one evening.

The opening blackness was as complete as I’ve known in the Swan, and I started to feel a certain spookiness at being left in the dark for so long. There were strange sounds, a howling that could have been a wolf. Then a rectangle of light struck down onto the stage, showing us Penny Downie, as Penelope, in a blood red dress and wrap, her reflection glowing like a stain on the black floor. A very effective start, only to be superseded by her tremendous performance as she led us through Penelope’s version of her life’s odyssey. She’s not a happy shade, this one, but even so she gets a lot of humour out of her opening speech, modestly describing her sack of words as “of a reasonable size”. It’s clear she wants to give us her version of events, take us for a “spin” through her life, but then her dead maids arrive, brought to life by the magic of theatre, pointing out that she had failed them. Penelope acknowledges this view, but deflects it as well by claiming she had turned a blind eye, wanting everything to turn out happily. Of course, it’s fine for her to talk – there were no happy endings for the maids.

And no happy beginnings either. As Penelope starts to tell her story from childhood, the maids reappear as the various characters – her father Icarius, King of Sparta, and her mother, a Naiad. (See, even in this play we have an unnamed woman!) There’s also a wonderful oracle who wails magnificently, and has some lovely lines about how hard it can be to make out the God’s intentions clearly. Not that that matters to the King – on finding out his daughter, Penelope, may at some point possibly weave a shroud for some sort of father, he decides to have her killed. Unfortunately he’s stupid enough to have the daughter of a naiad (water nymph) thrown into the sea. They take Penelope and cast her down, into the waves, where she struggles and writhes for a bit. Then a lovely flight of purple striped ducks come to rescue her (big birds, on the end of poles, thought they were seagulls at first but the lines soon put me straight). Icarius takes her back, and from then on everyone calls her “ducky”. We then get more of Penelope’s view of her parents, before the maids get their chance to point out that they were children too, and not the pampered children of Kings, but the neglected, beaten, starved children of the poor and captured, made to work hard for what little they were given, which never included love or kindness.

Already I was finding this play very powerful. I felt such a sense of relief that at last all the neglected women of the world were finally being given a voice. In Orestes last year, there were red body shapes round the back of the Yvonne Arnaud stage which I felt were a reminder of all those killed in the Trojan War. But still they were men. This is the first time I have seen any play really open up the awareness that behind all the slaughter of the ages there have been far more women affected, killed, raped, tortured, maimed and made to suffer than has ever been fully acknowledged. Unlike the red bodies, these women now get to come forward onto the stage and tell us their stories, and I found it incredibly moving and liberating to experience this in my favourite performance space and with such a good company of actors. I feel this is such an important work, it must be performed more, and brought to a wider audience. We have too much killing in the world as it is.

In fact, although I feel Penny Downie’s performance was absolutely superb, I did find her character rather smug and distant. I could appreciate the terrible conditions she’d been brought up in; even if the drowning story wasn’t true, she was still married off like a piece of livestock, and had to live in an unsympathetic household for most of her life. Appreciating it didn’t change things, though – she was still a difficult woman to feel close to, especially compared with the maids.

After a short description of Hades (bit colourless, apparently) she takes us through her wedding to Odysseus. The maids made very fine men, I must say; I was only slightly worried that I fancied a couple of them myself. Odysseus is a drug cheat, only he drugs the other contenders so he and his short legs can win the prize. Or rather the second prize. By this time, Helen (later of Troy) has turned up and is preening herself magnanimously on one of the balconies. So much beauty, so little time to let everyone see it! The men are obviously getting stiff necks (at least), craning to see her.

Penelope is taken off by Odysseus for their wedding night, and we get to see how he charms her into working with him to deceive the eavesdroppers silhouetted behind the curtain. The kissing and canoodling that follows was remarkable. I suppose I felt it was safe, knowing they’re both women, but somehow it was much more erotically charged than when two men do the same thing (as with Propeller). In fact, the women seemed able to take it further than men usually do, or men and women together, so perhaps it was just the increased intimacy that made it so powerful. (Either that, or I’ve got some hidden lesbian yearnings.) Men can be so skittish around the unmentionables, despite their macho posturing, while women are more relaxed about the nitty-gritty (comes from the monthly blood-letting, I suspect). Anyway, this scene, and the raping later on, were much more intense, oddly enough, than a lot of supposedly steamy sex scenes.

Penelope tells us how Odysseus takes her away, back to Ithaca, and we get another song from the maids chorus, reflecting on how they stand little chance of ever marrying a handsome hero who will take them away to a better life. The sea journey was short for us, longer for Penelope, who shows us that she’s not a good sailor by throwing up into a convenient bucket. King Laertes and his wife Queen Anticleia are a remarkable pair. He’s carrying a goat, probably his best friend in the whole world, and she bleats like one and has a hairstyle strongly reminiscent of horns. Unfortunately, there’s also Eurycleia, Odysseus’s old nurse, who basically takes charge of everything, giving Penelope no real way to fit in. But in mentioning that Penelope’s job is to give Odysseus a son, she does show her a way to be useful. At this point, Penelope’s eyes light up, and she holds her tummy, possibly suggesting that Telemachus is already en route?

Either way, the next chorus is about that nine month journey, together with the journeys the maids made to reach the royal household. They raise the question of whether they would have drowned him, had they known he was later to kill them (Steve votes yes, though the nurse also comes in for some criticism). Then Penelope is held aloft, and Telemachus is born, only to be taken immediately into Eurycleia’s charge. Odysseus, in that unthinking way men have, tries to congratulate Penelope by pointing out that she’s one up on Helen, who hasn’t had a child yet, but from Penelope’s perspective it’s more troubling to find him still thinking of that great beauty. (Men can be so inconsiderate when their wives have just given birth.)

The next section gives us a view of Penelope’s daily life in Ithaca. Ignored by practically everyone, she spends many days weaving in  the company of slaves, dreaming of the nights which she will spend with Odysseus in bed. There, he tells her the secret of the bedpost carved from a living olive tree, which means the bed can never be moved.  Just then, a ship arrives with the news of Helen and Paris eloping, and Odysseus packs and leaves. Penelope is furious with Helen, and tells us all about it – it’s a lovely bit of invective, well delivered.

Now there’s a fairly long passage where Penelope explains the waiting she endured. We see Telemachus growing up, and being cosseted by Eurycleia to the exclusion of his mother. Penelope is now running the estates, and does her best to increase them, hoping to impress Odysseus when he returns home. Then the news comes that Troy has fallen, and the maids tell the story of the taking of Troy until Penelope cuts them off. The details were becoming more harrowing by the line, but I suppose those who’d been through such abuses themselves were perhaps glad to hear of others suffering the same fate. Or perhaps they just weren’t as bothered as Penelope. I was aware of how much more their suffering had been, so that they could see such a brutal story as simple reality.

Now she’s spending her time looking out for Odysseus’s ship. A water tank had already appeared in the floor of the stage, and gave us a lovely representation of the harbour and sea. But all that came were rumours of Odysseus’s travels, and a group of sailors, looking suspiciously familiar, dancing and singing about their journey and adventures with Odysseus. Three of the maids were perched on the left balcony behind a microphone, looking like the kind of girls sailors enjoy the company of whilst in port. This wasn’t as clear as most of the other songs, but I still got the gist. The first act then closes with Penelope telling us that she heard no more after that.

For the start of the second act (there was no interval), Helen arrives, and we’re back in the underworld. She’s not accompanied by the string of admirers mentioned in the text, so I guess even the quick-change supremos of this ensemble couldn’t quite fit those parts in as well. In fact, she’s not even accompanied by much in the way of clothes, as she’s about to take a bath and give all her admirers a thrill. After a bitchy little exchange between them, in which Helen suggests Penelope isn’t Miss Squeaky Clean herself, the suitors begin arriving at Ithaca, sniffing around for a tasty morsel. It was quite menacing, this bit, as the figures of the suitors gradually stole into view in the gloom around the stage, and Penelope herself looks hunted. Before long, Penelope is being pestered by suitors right, left and centre, Telemachus is being laughed at when he tries to stand up to them, and the human pigs are eating the porcine pigs and other cattle to try and starve Penelope into making a decision. There’s a bit in the text where some of the maids play the animals being slaughtered, and I wasn’t clear about this in performance, but maybe a different angle next week will make it clearer.

Penelope has escaped to the right balcony at this point, and explains her view of her predicament. She’s trying to fend off her suitors by playing along, when she comes up with the idea of the shroud. She gives a lovely little speech to the suitors, and they go along with it. Now she has to spin the weaving out as long as possible.

A loom descends from above, and Penelope and her maids talk together as the maids unpick the day’s work. The fabric on the loom is a bright red, so there’s another reminder of all the killing. Penelope’s quite chatty with these maids – she’s selected them all and brought them up, and uses them to find out what the suitors are up to. Unfortunately, their behaviour is misinterpreted by those not in the know. The suitors regard them as recompense for being kept waiting, and Eurycleia and Telemachus consider them insolent whores. Eventually, one of them is raped by a suitor, and although the other women are attacked as well, she’s the one we focus on.

As she lies alone in the middle of the stage, in the light square (the water tank has gone by now), the other maids come on with feather fans, and sing a Hollywood-style musical number about how the maids like to sleep and dream of their perfect man. It finishes with a verse about how they always wake up to find they’re still in the same place, and have to get on with the unremitting toil, and then they leave, with the raped woman still on her own in the middle.

This whole section was one of the most moving and disturbing of the whole play. The rape itself was brutal, and seemed explicit, although it wasn’t. To then see such a soft, comfortable song and dance number while the  raped maid lay hurting in the middle, was difficult, yet I could see how in the midst of such pain and anguish, some kind of escape would be vital. These women needed their dreams to stay sane; the extent of their suffering could be measured by the gap between their fantasies and their reality. The contrast made the sense of suffering stronger for me.

We’re now getting close to the end of the story. Telemachus takes a ship to find his father, leaving Penelope even more abandoned. On his return, he does bring a little news, though not what she wants to hear. He’s seen Menelaus and Helen, and finally confesses that Helen does look old by now, older than Penelope herself.

A larger shroud drops down to show the progress they’d been unable to avoid making, and as the maids continue unpicking, Penelope promises to look after them, and tell Odysseus all about them when he gets back. How they’ve helped her, how they’ve found out things, etc. Unfortunately, the suitors have rumbled her, and she’s really in trouble. After praying to the gods, and reckoning they don’t actually want to help humans, she falls asleep and dreams. This bit was a little jumbled, but basically she seems to be dreaming about Odysseus’s journey, with a lot of the sailors’ song being reprised. There are also three big mouths – the sirens, I presume – and a big monster thingy which I assume was the Cyclops. All in all, it was quite entertaining. And afterwards, when Penelope wakes up, her prayers are finally answered as Odysseus comes home.

He’s in disguise, of course, and although he reveals himself to Telemachus, and Eurycleia eventually twigs, he insists on no one telling Penelope, as he thinks, stupid man, that she would give him away. She, of course, has already recognised him, but doesn’t want to spoil his view of himself as being clever. Unfortunately, he tells Eurycleia to lock her in her room so that she doesn’t see the bloodshed, as he intends to kill all the suitors. She goes to sleep, planning to tell him all about her faithful girls, and we can feel the tragedy building.

The bow-stringing sequence was very neat, with a few suitors completely unable to do it. Odysseus does, of course, and fires off lots of arrows at point blank range (mimed), so that suitors are falling all over the place. When he gives the order for the maids to clear the bodies and clean the place up, I wondered how they would do it, as the maids and the suitors are one and the same, but I found it very effective that the dead bodies simply get up, leave off their suitor gear, and become the maids. As they clean the place up, Odysseus is told of their insolence and bad behaviour, and orders them killed. Despite their pleas to Telemachus, they’re strung up, one by one, until all twelve are hanging, dead.

This was done very effectively. Instead of actual hangings, they each in turn stopped pleading and crying, and stood, twitching and swaying slightly, to represent the hanging bodies. It took me a few moments to realise this was happening, and then I found it an incredibly powerful image. With a short pause at the end, the maids then leave the stage and Penelope wakes up. Even as she’s horrified to find her loyal girls have been killed, we can see the realisation that she won’t do anything about it. She’s scared of rocking the boat, and she’ll live with the knowledge for years, but she won’t speak up. That’s the silence that doubly kills those girls.

She and Odysseus return to their bedroom, and now she tests him with the story of the bedpost. Although both acknowledge that they have changed, I’m not sure how well they’ll get to know each other, as Penelope is certainly keeping a lot back, and we probably all have our suspicions about Odysseus by now. The final section takes us back to Hades, where Penelope explains about the rebirth option, forgetting the past lives to go through another spell of life. Odysseus keeps going back, although all she wants is for him to stay with her, an unattainable dream. The final image is her description of her maids “running” away from her, their still twitching feet not actually touching the ground. It’s a macabre description, and all the better for having Penelope alone on the stage as she says it. Again, the total blackout, and we’re done.

Re-reading this, I don’t think my descriptions begin to get across the marvellous way this production was put on. The performances were all excellent, and the cast worked together as if they’d been doing it for years, not just weeks. I liked the mix of accents, as it gave me a sense of this being all women’s stories, not just coming from one culture’s point of view. The songs were apparently in all sorts of styles, but none of them jarred, although the Hollywood-style musical number did raise the discomfort level as mentioned above. All the action flowed seamlessly, and despite the director’s statement earlier (see below for pre-show notes) that the play wasn’t perfect, I was never bored, and never felt there was more work needed.

The three best aspects of this production, though, are the text itself, the performance of Penny Downie, and the way in which the ordinary women are allowed to speak. The text has such a distinctive voice, and has so much humour to balance the bitterness, that it’s a joy to read as well as hear. I may even read the original book to see how it’s been adapted. Penny Downie gives such an assured performance as Penelope that I can’t imagine it being improved, and I look forward to seeing it again next week from a closer position so that I can see more of the detail. She conveys all the emotions and thoughts so clearly, and I do hope she receives the accolades she deserves.

It almost seems like sacrilege to say that, though, when the importance of recognising all the women is emphasised so much in this play. Their story wouldn’t affect me so much if we didn’t have Penelope, while without these other women, her life’s story would be seriously incomplete. I’ll remember this production for a long while, and I suspect I’ll still be getting more ideas from it for some time to come.

Pre-show talk with Josette Bushell-Mingo (and a man)

We went to the pre-show having already heard from Deborah Shaw at the RSC Summer School a bit about the writing and audition processes for this production. Her description of Josette suggested a creative whirlwind, and we weren’t disappointed. Josette is both articulate and passionate about her work, and uses her body and voice very effectively both to get her points across and to include the whole audience in the experience.

She didn’t want to give too much away for those who had still to see the play, but I got a sense of a production that uses many forms of dramatic expression in a loose structure, which has evolved a lot over the rehearsal period. To be honest, a lot of what was said has been blown out of my mind by the tremendous performance, but I will just mention that Josette warned us not to expect too much, as the play wasn’t fully developed yet. Changes were still being made, and the whole process of doing this across the Atlantic sounded challenging, yet very rewarding. She described her first meeting with Margaret Atwood to discuss her ideas – Margaret was very genteel and restrained (good impression from Josette here), while Josette was even more frantic with nerves and gabbled her way through it all. Apparently it went well, as Margaret seemed completely happy to hand her baby over for the transformation to the stage.

From her descriptions, not only was Josette excited to be closing the Swan (temporarily, we hope), but the cast were thrilled to be here as well. The Canadian actresses brought a lot to the mix, especially a more laid back attitude to adapting Margaret Atwood’s work, and all the cast were fully involved in developing the piece. She mentioned one section which had been moved by others, put back by her, but which they knew didn’t work. God knows which bit she meant – I couldn’t spot it. At least my expectations weren’t too high after this talk.

One point the chap made was that Helen and Menelaus must have had a talk after he got her back, and I found myself thinking “Of course they didn’t – Menelaus is a man!” Josette told us how the women played all the men’s parts, and had had special training on how to move, both as men and as women, which had helped them enormously. It was certainly one of the strengths of the production that the male parts were so believable.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at