The Penelopiad

Wed 20th – Sat 23rd November 2013

reviews

Tim Maloney

at 09:37 on 21st Nov 2013

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Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, with a particular focus on episode of twelve maids hanged by Telemachus, thus turning Homer’s epic poem into a commentary on sex and class. As someone unfamiliar with Homer’s Odyssey, or the classics in general, I hope the reader will forgive any ignorance of the nuances and references to the classical literature which the play seeks to cast in a new light. The play itself was a competently directed production, with strong individual performances from its main cast, and in general made for an enjoyable show.

The main performances were generally excellent, with lines spoken and not recited, making the characters likeable and compelling. Aoife Kennan was commanding in the central role of Penelope, while Max Maher’s Telemachus was juvenile and spoilt, yet vulnerable and sympathetic. The chemistry between Penelope and Odysseus was also a strong; the supporting cast was also generally competent, though occasionally the dialogue seemed to flow too quickly.

Particular praise must be reserved for the group choreography, which was genuinely smooth, visually captivating, and effective at conveying some of the more infamous scenes in the play. The group songs were similarly poignant and well performed.

The use of music was occasionally effective, but at times made some of the dialogue inaudible. The segues between scenes were occasionally awkward, with some loss of dramatic poise; this became less of an issue as the play went on, as transitions between scenes generally seemed to flow more smoothly. Lighting was used for dramatic effect well in some places, especially when the spirits of the betrayed maidens were present, but maybe could have been used more, especially to break up some of the earlier scenes which lacked visual variety. Otherwise, the production was kept simple with minimal amount of props; this was advantageous in the sense that the actors were challenged to use their own bodies to convey emotion, something that was particularly potent in the aforementioned group scenes.

In general, some strong individual performances reinforced by a competent cast and good directing made this an enjoyable, engaging but certainly not flawless adaptation of the Penelopiad.

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Alex Dickinson

at 10:00 on 21st Nov 2013

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‘We are the maids. The ones you killed. The ones you failed.’ Assembled on stage are Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and the six maidens whose murders haunt her to the afterlife. These words, spoken in the opening scene, set the dark and provocative tone for this excellent production of Margaret Atwood’s short play ‘The Penelopiad’.

‘The Penelopiad’ presents an imagining of the memories of Penelope, queen of Odysseus, as she recalls her life from the underworld. In particular, it focuses on her twenty years of suffering at the hands of suitors, and her pain when the longed-for return of her husband brings not joy but great tragedy as the king hangs six of her trusted handmaidens for no crime of their own.

The story-telling is necessarily woven around Odysseus’s queen, who provides an anchor as the time and setting switch between the Hades of the present and the mortal world of the past. Aoife Kennan is excellent in this role, creating vivid portrayals of the young and innocent girl, the calm and clever repeller of suitors, and the confused and guilt-ridden spirit whose regrets still plague her in the underworld. Much of the play is narrated by this manifestation of Penelope in Hades. However, any threat of monotony is broken by the clever weaving of narration and action – often Penelope will break out of active participation in a scene from her life to address the audience as the long-dead spirit, while other characters continue to physically play out the story around her. Jake Spence, as Odysseus, is particularly powerful in such scenes. The portrayal of the couple’s wedding night, in which Penelope alternates between active involvement and narration whilst her husband breaks down her trepidation and wins her trust, is one of the best pieces of acting in the play.

However, it is not individuals but groups which bring the most dramatic moments to the play. The six maidens, always appearing together in identical black clothing, reinforce their collective identity by speaking their rhythmic lines one after the other in an intense and harrying manner. This generally worked well, although at times their dialogue was too quiet to be clearly heard, particularly when accompanied by music. Music is well-used, with the repetition of songs performed by the actors working especially well. An emotional highlight is the singing of the maidens as they weave a shroud in two very different circumstances, before and after their rape by the suitors. The suitors, like the maidens, are identified as a group by a shared style of dress, in their case blazers and suits, and manner of speaking, which the actors imbued with an appropriate level of bravado and cruelty. Fierce music and red lighting combine in the rape scene itself to create the most visually arresting part of the play, with the assault played out in well-practised yet disturbingly violent choreography. Later in the play the hanging of the maidens threatened to create a scene of similar intensity as a noose was slowly placed over each of their heads, but unfortunately the accompanying music cut out before the actions were completed, and the tension was broken.

The spartan set, comprising only a table, a chaise-longue and six chairs, well-suits the fluid nature of the story-telling and focuses attention on the characters who, in contrast to physical objects, form the most important aspects of Penelope’s memories. The use of props is similarly minimal but effective, with a highlight being the rearrangement of fruit bowls on the table to illustrate the animosity between Penelope and Odysseus’s nurse Eurycleia.

Despite its dark nature, ‘The Penelopiad’ is interspersed with moments of comedy and caricature, which the cast performed well and the audience appreciated. Max Maher provided particularly enjoyable light relief as the royal couple’s spoilt son Telemachus, although he also depicted with sufficient gravity his transition from ungrateful child to a young man well-meaning but ultimately too weak-willed to prevent the murder of six innocent women. Richard Skipper, too, filled several of his lines as the oracle and a suitor with the necessary comedy.

Overall, ‘The Penelopiad’ is a reflective yet entertaining student production with a high standard of acting and direction. Highly recommended.

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