Everyone knows Penelope. Faithful, chaste Penelope, Odysseus’ beloved wife who waited twenty years for his return from the Trojan War. Didn’t she spend a decade weaving a shroud and unravelling it by night, outwitting her suitors whilst her husband traversed the high seas and dallied with goddesses? Penelope was ideal. Peneolope was patient. Penelope is dead - and it’s finally time for her side of the legend. Tired of being held up as a reproach to less steadfast women, Penelope pauses in her wanderings of the afterlife to set the record straight. Her life was decided by men and her posthumous reputation rests on their words too. We think we know her story, but we should really think again.
Margaret Atwood’s irreverent feminist retelling of the Odyssey combines humour, anger, tragedy and the sad fate of women whose stories will never be heard. The play weaves key moments from Penelope’s life with scenes from her afterlife in the Elysian Fields. There, she is tormented by the murder of her handmaidens, executed, as legend would have it, for consorting with Odysseus’ enemies.
For a troupe of young actors, the cast put on a very good show, although relative inexperience claims a few victims. The Chorus’ presentation of the sing-song musical numbers is a bit naff, with neat choreography too restrained to create an emotional connection at times. Telemachus and Odysseus have an unfortunate tendency to rush their lines: a pity, given James Grachos’ promising interpretation of Penelope’s likeable if somewhat unobservant husband.
The modern touches and speech patterns are beautifully judged. I particularly liked Lizzy Cappuccino’s interpretation of the original ‘mean girl’ Helen. Not only does she ruin Penelope’s life, she remains just as insufferable in death as well. The staging is as polished and well-thought-out as anything on the Fringe, and more than overcomes the amateur connotations of the church hall in which it is performed. Troubling concepts - guilt, rape, misogyny - are handled with skill. The beauty of Atwood’s play is that it never feels preachy. We empathise with Penelope and her mistreated handmaidens, laughing at the sillier aspects of the Odyssey whilst realising how limited the legend’s treatment of women’s emotions can be.
This ‘Penelopiad’ is a worthy staging of an interesting play. It has much to ask and more to offer, despite occasional stumbles. In the end it’s Paloma D’Auria who wins the play its extra star. Her Penelope is witty, engaging and convincing, carrying an already accomplished show to the next level.