Adapted from the novella and play by Margaret Atwood. Directed by Kate Blackhurst. Original music by Glenn Gore Phillips. Choreography by Brooke Thomas. Vocal coach Tony Turner. Set design by Cate Clelland. Costume design by Annie Kay. Sound design Neville Pye. Lighting design Stephen Still. Stage manager Imogen Thomas. A Crouching Giraffe Production in association with Papermoon Theatre. Courtyard Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. July 7 – 17 2021.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
The Penelopiad, produced by Crouching Giraffe Productions in association with Papermoon Theatre and directed by Kate Blackhurst is in my opinion the most significant production that I have seen on a Canberra stage for quite some time. This may seem a grand claim, but Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Odysseus’s deserted wife, Penelope, is a scathing attack on the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. Atwood sagaciously assails her audience with antithetical themes that resound with deafening universality. Justice and injustice, power and powerlessness, authority and servitude play out their universal conflict.
Some may regard Penelope’s account of her experience during Odysseus’s long absence at the Trojan War as a feminist tract. Others may regard it as an indictment of gender politics that disadvantages the woman in a male dominated society. It is simply the story of Penelope’s life told from her afterlife existence in Hades. In the telling, Atwood entices her audience to consider, judge and reflect on the circumstances and fates of her characters, until we are left in no doubt that the innocent have been wronged and that power is manifest in the omnipotent men, including Penelope’s father who would have her drowned, the hero Odysseus, and the rapacious suitors. Atwood and Blackhurst observe the exception – the beauteous, vain Helen with the power to launch a thousand ships, perfectly played by Victoria Dixon, the sternly authoritative and manipulative Euryclea ( a thoroughly convincing performance byCarolyn Eccles ) and Penelope (Elaine Noon), who must eventually be compelled to use her wits and innate cunning to survive the suitors’ advances.
Kate Blackhurst’s direction is as tightly woven as the Grecian style tapestry hangings suspended as a striking atmospheric backdrop to Cate Clelland’s design. Blackhurst’s direction is sensitive, intelligent and imaginative and she is ably supported by Brooke Thomas’s ritualistic choreography , Glenn Gore Phillips’s original choral music and Neville Pye’s effective sound design. The production evokes the authentic feel of a Greek drama with a central character as narrator to the story and a chorus of women who comment on the action. Theirs is largely the commentary of gender politics perceived through the eyes of the twelve maids, cruelly hanged by Odysseus. Blackhurst and Thomas create a wonderful ensemble, expressing the power of Atwood’s tale through excellent choral work, carefully coached by Tony Turner and dythiramb song and dance in the tradition of Greek theatre. Also evoking the spirit of the Greek drama is the thespian-like emergence of the maids as principal characters in the drama. There are fine performances from Heidi Silberman as the heroic Odysseus, Carolyn Eccles as the domineering nurse, Eurycleia and Martha Russell as the arrogant young son Telemachus. Every aspect of this intelligently performed production of Atwood’s alternative perspectives is firmly rooted in research which informs the authenticity of the Greek art of storytelling.
Central to the success of the production is Elaine Noon’s performance as Penelope. Her Penelope is real, her recounting natural and appealing. From the naïve fifteen year old bride to the sexually awakened wife, the loving mother, the outsider in a foreign kingdom and the cunning survivor she unfolds her version of her unhappy plight. Noon’s performance is disarmingly natural. She presents a character, reflecting on her life with the awareness of hindsight. Noon relates Penelope’s narrative simply and with the emotional detachment made possible by reflection, until she becomes the protagonist, playing out Atwood’s reconstructed scenes. It is a balance that Noon convincingly commands, so that we are absorbed by her story and moved by her experience. The Three Fates have spun a tangled and unjust web for women, forced to construct their own art of survival.
Atwood’s The Penelopiad casts the tale of heroes in a very different light, illuminated insightfully by Crouching Giraffe and Papermoon’s challenging and theatrically engrossing performance of this important alternative myth. This is theatre that confronts, challenges preconception and entertains. It would make Bertolt Brecht proud!
Postscript: At the time of this production, America and Australia are considering the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, relinquishing their protection and the fate of women and children to the Taliban while opening the way to fearful consequence. Atwood’s call for gender equity and justice in The Penelopiad continues to reverberate through the ages to our present time.