The Penelopiad – August 2007 (2)


By: Margaret Atwood

Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 9th August 2007

I managed to wipe my memory clean for the start of this performance, forgetting what I’d seen before, to allow me to see this as a totally new experience. I did start to get “flashbacks” later on, but I found it surprisingly easy to move into forgetfulness – perhaps the influence of Lethe?

There were some changes to the cast. Sarah Malin, who had played Odysseus so well last time, had been taken ill, so the parts were re-arranged to cover. This meant there were only eleven maids tonight, but that didn’t spoil it for me. On the whole, the understudies did a great job, and I possibly just preferred this Helen (Lisa Karen Cox). Odysseus was played by Kelly McIntosh tonight, and the only snag was her height. When so many people comment on Odysseus’s short legs, it needs a bit more effort on the audience’s part when Odysseus is one of the tallest people there. However, apart from that, and some uncertainty in the bow-stringing scene, this was another good performance, remarkably so in the post-marriage bed.

It was interesting seeing it again from a completely different angle. Before, we had more of a panoramic view – here we were much closer to the action, and could see the expressions on their faces more clearly. I was also aware of the sound effects more – how recordings were used for various lines to create an effect. I hadn’t realised how much this went on when we were up in the second gallery. I also saw some things that hadn’t been so visible from above – Penelope talking to one of the maids who was off to one side, for example. And of course we missed seeing that beautiful pool this time. I’m glad I had my memory to call on for that one.

The darkness at the start seemed to last longer this time. When the light shafted down, Penelope was standing there with her veil over her head, and speaks the first few lines like that. I don’t remember if it was the same last time. Either way, it was very effective. When she removed the veil, and wrapped it round herself, she was grinning, and very girlish. The changes of emotion through the opening scene came across very well, and I noticed this time that when the maids came on from the back they too had veils over themselves. When the next scene starts, showing us Penelope’s childhood, that’s when they throw off the veils and start playing the other parts.

I was able to see Penny Downie’s drowning performance much better tonight – it was very effective, giving the impression of someone falling through the water, and struggling for air. The birds still seemed more like seagulls, but who cares? The audience seemed more responsive tonight; I heard more laughter on the funny lines than I remember from before.

She dances a bit when talking of the “vapid dancing” that goes on in the fields of asphodel – that may be new. The curtain at the back that came down for the childhood scene, I think, didn’t properly come down, so the group that huddles behind it for the wedding night activities are partly exposed. I thought Penelope screamed a bit quicker tonight, and seemed to be enjoying the deception a lot more.

The sea journey to Ithaca was clearer from this perspective. I noticed Penelope throwing up more than once, and the maids were hauling on ropes and bailing out the ship. Odysseus was positioned aft, steering their course. With the dramatic lighting, it made more of an impression on me this time. I was prepared for the introduction of the in-laws this time – there seemed to be more bleating, though whether it was the wife or the goat, I’m not sure.

The birthing scene was well received this time, and certainly looked effective, with the baby suddenly popping out. I had a greater sense of Penelope being held back from her baby, being cut off from her natural role.  The scene where Odysseus leaves for Troy registered more with me. The audience responded more to Odysseus’s comment about having thought the oath up himself – hoist with his own petard.

It’s after this that Penelope has a go at Helen, calling her a “septic bitch”, and immediately after that she draws back the cover on the pool. For several of the scenes, when the maids or their characters were giving us the main action, I noticed that Penelope was standing towards the back of the stage, usually on the left, and with her back to us she was looking over her shoulder at what was going on. This gave a lovely sense of her detachment from the maids’ version of the story, while still emphasising her importance as the central character.

The meeting with Helen in Hades was just as good as before. I liked Helen’s calm assurance that, even as a disembodied ghost, she’s still worth looking at. The rape scene was just as powerful, and I felt the contrast with the feather fan song even more acutely. It’s a tough thing to pull off, bringing in a song like that when we’ve just had an extremely emotional moment, but they’re still managing it very well.

The dream sequence is triggered by Eurycleia bringing in a drink for Penelope. She holds a huge drinking bowl up, and runs around her, waving it in the air. Then Penelope dreams. She sees the sailors, the sirens, and Telemachus with his toy boat on his head, walking across the stage, and meeting with Helen. The one-eyed monster seemed to be missing this time, but it all seemed much clearer from this angle.

I realised that Penelope is teasing Eurycleia when she tells her to wash the stranger’s feet. Knowing that she’s already recognised Odysseus helped, I think. The tension wasn’t quite the same for the bow-stringing scene, and Odysseus had some difficulty removing his breastplate to become a maid again, but the hanging scene was even more effective, as I could see the maids rise up – the equivalent of their bodies dropping down – one by one. It was macabre and very moving. For their final bows, Penny Downie took a moment to acknowledge each of the understudies.

Overall, I enjoyed this almost as much as the first time. The changes due to illness did remove a bit of the energy, but the performances were even more remarkable for the last-minute rearrangements. Seeing it close up was also a bonus, and I still think Penny Downie should receive every acting award available for this performance. I’d love it to come back after the stint in Canada, but heigh-ho, we’ll just have to cross our fingers.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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