The Penelopiad

Cambridge Shortlegs and Pembroke Players return to the Edinburgh Fringe with their production of The Penelopiad, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novella. Switching between physical theatre, light-hearted silliness and darker drama, the production initially feels a little bit muddled and unbalanced. However, it ultimately irons itself out into a solidly performed story.

The Penelopiad shows a lot of potential but is hoisted by its own petard.

The Penelopiad tells the tale of the Odyssey and surrounding events as seen from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. Narrating from the Underworld, Penelope relates her tale starting from her mythical birth and taking us through her initially unhappy transfer to Ithaca whilst expressing her frustration at her vain cousin Helen. The tale concludes with in line with the original epic, showing Odysseus’ eventual return and subsequent vengeance.

The intent is to give the women of the story a voice, which is certainly a noble goal. Classical women are definitely in need of much greater representation and development. We do get that here, to an extent. Aoife Kennan’s powerful performance as Penelope is what drives the show forward and Rosanna Suppa’s portrayal of an incredibly self-obsessed Helen is deftly done as well. As for the men, Alasdair McNab’s Odysseus is excellent when the narrative actually allows him to appear.

Then we hit a stumbling block. The major emotional force of the play is meant to be Penelope’s guilt over the deaths of her maidservants, who haunt her in the Underworld, but the play gives us little chance to really develop any sympathy for these characters. Instead of character development, we are presented with scattered pieces of physical theatre that lack synchronisation. Perhaps this could be attributed to early-run nerves, but on a larger level the pieces feel out of place with the other more naturalistic scenes. The maids are made the Greek chorus of the piece, but it is more difficult to sympathise with a chorus than with individuals. To an extent, this may be the fault of the adapted script, but I wonder if the physical theatre could have been removed in place of some characterisation for the chorus.

The rapid switch between styles hinders the play. When Icarius comes out holding a plastic baby doll after a dark opening monologue, we’re completely baffled, but the performance eventually steadies out when Odysseus and Penelope are finally left alone, resulting in a particularly touching scene. It contained an admittedly understated moment of physical theatre, but the production would have benefited from choosing one style and sticking to it.

The Penelopiad shows a lot of potential but is hoisted by its own petard. Partly, this is due to the limitations of the script, as in the vain Helen of Troy who shows nothing new. Moments of limited direction also play their part; the Furies are FURIOUS and thus yell things. Still, the performances are strong and will only get stronger. The Penelopiad is definitely worth your time, even if the script adaptation is somewhat limited.

Reviews by James Beagon

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The Blurb

'We had no voice. We had no name. We had no choice'. Ithaca. Ancient Greece. Odysseus has set sail for Troy and his illustrious adventures leaving behind his wife, Penelope, and her twelve doomed maids. Cambridge Shortlegs present Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: a retelling of Homer's classic Odyssey. This energetic and fast-paced production weaves Atwood's witty dialogue with movement and music to tell the story of those whom Homer left behind. Exploring class and gender divide, this re-imagining puts a modern punch back into an ancient tale.