Penelope

Waiting for 20 years for Odysseus' return, Penelope is an emblem of marital fidelity and has always provided plenty of material for reinterpretations, feminist or otherwise. Kate McCarthy reviews the latest, which dumps the suitors in a dried out swimming pool

Kate McCarthy, 28 February 2011

penelope1.jpgPenelope - the icon of the silent, faithful wife awaiting her husband's return. In Homer's Odyssey, she is a heroine of monogamy. In this production, written by Enda Walsh and directed by Mikel Murphy, the setting may still be sweltering Greece but the era is far from defined and the accents are definitely native Irish. Here, Penelope's pool of suitors wait in a dried out, bloodstained lido complete with cocktail cabinet and barbeque: and time is running out for her to fend off their frantic assertions in her husband's absence.

Her silence contrasts with their verbosity: the men seem to have spent their years falling in love with the sound of their own voices instead of the woman they aim to woo. They tenderly embrace a rock-star microphone that causes their whispers to echo back into their ears.

In fact, my only criticism of the play was that the long speeches occasionally seemed like the self-indulgence of the writer rather than the characters, but they certainly served the point well that the 'ideal' woman is one who leaves the talking to her male counterparts.

Viewers will find many thoughts provoked on the subjects of women and marriage, silence, fidelity and ownership

The play ran a breadth of genres, starting with a decidedly Beckettian vibe (appropriate for a production by Galway company Druid Theatre) and moving through farce, comedy, drama and even a touch of panto, through to the inevitable Greek Tragedy.

If you know the story, then you will be aware of what the ending must be, but I had got caught up enough in the action to be taken by surprise when the deus ex machina came.

The design aspects felt faultless, in spite of a bulb blowing: the set was stunning, and lighting and sound constantly supported the atmosphere.

penelope2.jpgIrishmen and heat do not make good bedfellows but here you could feel the sweat on their brows in this anti-oasis. The costumes ranged from the smallest of Speedos to somewhat more elaborate get-ups, but all were upstaged by the simply extraordinarily beautiful frock worn by Penelope herself - think Grecian goddess meets Bafta red carpet - which I will unashamedly admit I coveted, although I am sure the more intellectual response would have been to observe its contribution to her aura of unreality.

Frocks aside, Penelope's story is an interesting one from a feminist point of view and this piece looks at a part of the tale which is the crux of much debate, her relationship with her suitors and possibly temptation to succumb to their advances. Any viewer of this piece will find many thoughts provoked on the subjects of women and marriage, silence, fidelity and ownership. At one point, ambitious suitor Quinn says he told the absent Murray that Penelope did not exist at all, hitting on the unspoken truth that the whole idea of her is a myth, created by these men in order to give themselves something to compete for.

Ultimately it was a funny, original and theatrical piece which is everything I look for in a production: one of my favourite drums to bang is the importance of theatre that achieves what film cannot; and certainly the set pieces in this would not have had the same effect on screen as they did happening right in front of you.

One sublime scene in particular was described by my companion as 'joyful' - if you go and see it, you will know which one I mean. While their characters flail and flounder, the actors rise to the challenge and meet it head-on. Frocks, blood and guts, cocktail sausages - what's not to like?

Penelope runs at Hampstead Theatre until 15 March 2011.

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