The Penelopiad @ The Swan Theatre
One thing often overlooked in all the press and hype about the refurbishment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is the fact that the adjacent Swan Theatre is also having to shut down for a couple of years. Everyone’s favourite Stratford theatre, its absence is going to be sorely felt until its reopening.
Its final season has been somewhat muted, and not only by the horrible hoarding around the main theatre that hides the Swan nicely from view. Macbeth had poor reviews, Macbett passed by with polite acclaim and Dash Arts’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided a brief glimmer of light, albeit one that had been seen only a year previously in the same theatre. And now, instead of a big finale, comes a collaboration with Canada’s National Arts Centre on Margaret Atwood’s adaptation of her novel The Penelopiad.
It’s an odd choice for a closing production, but a brave one. Continuing the work started in the Complete Works Festival on investigating new tellings of old texts, Atwood’s rewriting of the Odysseus mythology from his wife’s perspective is an inventive, if light, novel and obviously translatable to stage with its myriad dramatic voices.
Here, the female members of the Macbeth/Macbett ensemble joined forces with seven visiting Canadian actresses and (presumably to help sell the show) RSC associate actor Penny Downie to play the title role. The other actresses in this all-female company played Penelope’s twelve maids, the maids who, in a footnote of the Odyssey, were hanged by Odysseus on his return home. The maids doubled as all the other characters of the story in a playful and theatrical take on the text.
The highlight was, unsurprisingly, Downie in the central role. Narrator, liar, storyteller and stage manager, Penelope began and ended the play in Hades, ridden with guilt over the silence that led to the murder of her faithful servants. Downie’s performance was excellent, combining the characteristics of a highly intelligent aristocrat with the soft pleas of a woman who knows that the world has misjudged her and that she has precious little chance of changing people’s opinions of her. She commanded the stage throughout, only gradually beginning to lose control of the story as the communal voice of the maids slowly began to overpower hers.
The maids were slightly more mixed, a combination of funny, moving and occasionally irritating. It didn’t help that the excellent Sarah Malin was indisposed for this evening, meaning that three of the actors had shuffled parts around. Kelly McIntosh did a fine job of stepping into Malin’s sandals as Odysseus, and Lisa Karen Cox gave an equally solid first performance as Helen of Troy, but it was clear that the casting changes had shaken the cast somewhat, with a couple of awkward moments- most obviously, a hideous moment where McIntosh couldn’t work out how to undo her breastplate in a hurry and had to get another actor to help her in a panic to sort it before the dramatic hanging of the maids. Fortunately, they covered well and made it just in time.
Good performances came from Pauline Hutton as a completely OTT Oracle and a quietly moving maid, Corrine Koslo as a bustling and very short Icarius and Kate Hennig as a Eurycleia whose motives we could understand but still remained unlikable. The production differed from the novel in that it drew the lines of blame somewhat more clearly. Eurycleia was brutal in her treatment of the “whores”, but her behaviour was also seen as acceptable in light of the information she had been given. Odysseus and Telemachus were ignorant of the true situation, so their brutal killing of the maids was again understood. And the maids themselves became far more innocent, less the gossipping and rude servants of Atwood’s book and more the noble assistants to Penelope’s cause. In point of fact, it was Penelope who came off worst, and this is where Downie shone. It was Penelope who set the plan in motion, Penelope who failed to say anything at the right time and Penelope who, even after 6000 years in the afterlife, had still not explained to Odysseus why the dead maids haunted him. The play chronicled her journey of realisation, from the woman who seemed intent on clearing her own name to a woman subconsciously still haunted herself by the twitching feet of her dead maids.
The direction, by Josette Bushell-Mingo, was good throughout. From the moment the audience were plunged into absolute blackout to the screams of lost souls and the roaring of a three-headed dog at the start of the play, the director worked hard throughout to conjure the dark shadow of Hades that underscored the entire production. Even throughout highly comic moments such as the camp hornpipe dance telling the story of Odysseus’ travels to his parents’ ludicrous get-up as goats, a disconcerting sense of sadness or danger hung over the play. The maids’ first appearance saw them shrouded and chanting, and we were never allowed to forget that this was as much their story as Penelope’s, the story of their unjust deaths.
This play occupied an emotional range similar to that of Macbett, only far more limited. It was never as funny as it could have been, nor ever quite as dark. Moments of beauty stood out- the shimmering pool of forgetfulness that Telemachus sailed his boat on, or the bitchy conversation between Helen and Penelope in the underworld that revealed Penelope’s weakness and bias as a narrator. The best was saved for last; the maids, desperately scrubbing the floor of the suitors’ blood, overheard Odysseus’ instructions to kill them and began to scream and plead desperately, clutching at Eurycleia’s skirts, and as the first one shot bolt upright in a hanged position, the panic became a frenzy. One by one, in quick succession, they were each hanged where they stood, leaving them creaking and swinging slowly in utter silence. It was moments like this that elevated the production. Hopefully, over its run in Canada, it will develop and iron out the weaknesses- for now, it’s a play with a great deal of potential, not always realised.
Finally, a note of disappointment. Despite all the talk of collaboration, the post-show talk saw every single one of the Canadian actors and Penny Downie come out to talk to the audience, and not one of the RSC Macbeth actors. Perhaps this was coincidence, but it’s always suspicious when you only have one half of a collaborative project saying how good it was while the other half of the project don’t even show up…..