Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Penelopiad


 The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.  Crouching Giraffe in association with Papermoon Theatre at Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, July 7 – 17, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 9

Creatives:                                                Cast:
Director – Kate Blackhurst                      Penelope – Elaine Noon
Vocal Coach – Tony Turner                    Telemachus/Maid – Martha Russell
Sound design – Neville Pye                    Melantho/Maid – Emily Smith
Lighting Design – Stephen Still              Antinous/Maid – Tijana Kovac
Original Music – Glenn Gore Phillips     Maid – Milena Rafic
Choreography – Brooke Thomas            Naiad Mother/Maid – Sarah Hull
Set Design – Cate Clelland                     Eurycleia/Maid – Carolyn Eccles
Costumes – Annie Kay                           Oracle/Maid – Emily Ridge
Properties – Jessica Dickie                     Icarius/Maid – Shauna Priest
                                                                Odysseus/Maid – Heidi Silberman
                                                                Laertes/Maid – Jess Waterhouse
                                                                Helen/Maid – Victoria Dixon
                                                                Anticleia/Maid – Sure Gore Phillips

Margaret Atwood, of The Handmaids’ Tale fame, dedicates her novella, The Penelopiad, “For my family”.  I wonder how her family felt on reading, and later watching, the often touching but ultimately horrifying story of Penelope, the wife of the putative hero, Odysseus, who rescued Helen of Troy.

Now, speaking from Hades, “being dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness” – that is, her story being forgotten or never even recorded – Penelope begins with a warning to us all.  “I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters.  You think you’d like to read minds?  Think again.”

Of course, as Elaine Noon spoke these words, we all immediately fell into Atwood’s trap, held there for two hours’ traffic on the stage - and even beyond the Maids’ last words, as they sprout feathers, and fly away as owls:

we took the blame
it was not fair
but now we’re here
we’re all here too
the same as you

and now we follow
you, we find you
now, we call
to you to you
too wit too woo
too wit too woo
  too woo

In some other productions, a long table, behind which Penelope sits, is a central static fixture.  What I like especially about Cate Clelland’s set is its flexibility so that movement is at the core of the drama: it’s a story told in action, in a way I imagine similar to the way mythical stories of Aboriginal people are performed, as much in dance and song as in speech.

In one production (isn’t Youtube marvellous?), Odysseus is played by a man.  For me it seems essential to have the whole story presented by 13 women because the play is grounded in the perspective that only women can have.  When Heidi Silberman, one of Penelope’s close maids, takes on the role of Odysseus, there is humour and irony which does not happen if a man is brought in for that role.  The same is true later when the roles of the men suitors, who raped the maids in the story, are played by those very women.  

There is a very nice interview with two women in a production which, I think, has the right ‘feel’.  Uploaded by Xtra Magazine at

it’s about the Nightwood Theatre production: “Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad makes its Toronto remount at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre”.  Perhaps Margaret Atwood herself was there.

I like, too, the symbolism built into the set design, of the huge woven wall hangings which seem to represent the stage as in Ancient Greek times, and perhaps were woven by Penelope and her Maids.  The costumes, too, take us seemingly back to Ancient Greece, but give us a range of distinct characters as members of the Chorus take on roles in the story.

The music, voicing and singing, part and in unison, also do more than form a sound-track.  The production, seemingly simple in the intimate small-scale Studio space, has all the elements of drama working together with purpose and artistic integrity.

This Penelopiad is my kind of theatre – strong in its intention; powerful in its effect and its message.  When I hear the occasional boobook owl, the currawongs whooping or the sulphur crested cockatoos screeching every day around my home, I know Penelope and her Maids are reminding me that “we took the blame / it was not fair”.

Cate Clelland's set design for
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Crouching Giraffe, Canberra 2021