Review: The Penelopiad

Anna Bradley 21 November 2013

11pm, Wed 20 to Sat 23 Nov, ADC Theatre

The lights go up. Slightly. Smoke swirls around the floor. A spotlight shines on a single figure in the middle of the stage: Penelope.

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a complete metamorphosis of the Odysseus myth, feminist style. Instead of focusing on the long suffering male hero, the gaze of the audience is turned towards Penelope and her maids. They have a disturbing story to tell.

This production skilfully walks the line between comic and unsettling, with the mood ever tending towards the latter. A major source of this unease is provided by the almost omnipresent contingent of vengeful maids who, despite a slightly wooden start, were by the end giving convincing performances that warmed and chilled the heart in turn. Both Aoife Kennan and Jake Spence give solid performances as Penelope and Odysseus, although it was often Richard Skipper who stole the scene with his successful portrayal of comic characters, from a slightly hesitant and thoroughly unintimidating Oracle to an overly romantic and slightly wimpy suitor. His efforts gained many a well deserved laugh.

However, this is not a play that will leave you with a warm and happy feeling inside. Even early on, when there are more jokes than deaths, spectral maids or a sudden light change often disrupt the scene leaving the audience disorientated. The clever use of contemporary music furthers this sense of discomfort; whether it’s Bon Iver’s I Can’t Make You Love Me playing in the background of Penelope’s wedding night (make of that what you will), or a punchy jazzed up version of El Tango de Roxanne thumping out of the speakers, you never feel safe and secure for long.

This is the overriding message of the Penelopiad: women are never secure. The male figures seem threatening enough, portrayed as excessively violent and crass, but competition also exists between the females. This is shown brilliantly through various bitchy clashes between practical Penelope and the more hedonistic Helen of Troy as well as by an exploration of the power dynamic between Penelope and the ‘servant’ figure of Eurycleia.

You should go and see this play. Not because it will make you happy, although it probably will make you laugh, but because it tackles uncomfortable material such as rape and betrayal in a creative and provocative way. Multiple song and dance sequences are used throughout the performance, with predominantly good results although by the third rendition of Weaving Weaving it was becoming a little repetitive. Overall, however, this is a really good offering from a talented cast full of potential.