The Penelopiad

It’s not perfect, but TILLY SCULLION finds that this provocative play is still worth leaving the library for.

ADC aoife Kennan jake spence margaret atwood penelopiad tilly scullion

ADC Theatre, 11pm, Wed 20 – Sat 23 November 2013, £6/5

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It might be week 7, but I’m in a decidedly week 5 frame of mind. A combination of drizzle, darkness and dissertation left me much in need of some theatrical relief and it was with the excitement of one freshly out of prison (or in my case, the library) that I went to the ADC late show, The Penelopiad, last night. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that any play based on The Odyssey is unlikely to be a barrel of laughs, but this Margaret Atwood adaptation had the potential to be darkly witty and refreshingly provocative. And at times, it succeeded.

The Penelopiad gives the narrative power back to the female characters of The Odyssey, telling the story of Odysseus’ absence from the perspective of his wife, Penelope. The tale is fragmented by the haunting chorus of the six maids, who, due partially to misunderstanding and partially to the malice of a jealous nurse, are mercilessly hanged upon Odysseus’ return. Dressed in black to contrast Penelope’s white, they become her shadows, crying out for justice and refusing to allay her guilt.

The success of this play depends on the ensemble, and their ability to update the Greek chorus trope whilst staying true to its collaborative principles. In this semi-choreographed, partially-sung production, the maids were generally unified and focused, their presence both threatening and strangely defenceless. The problem with such an ensemble piece is that it becomes very obvious if one actor is not as involved as the others, and occasionally my eye was drawn to those who seemed less committed, breaking the spell created by the other cast members.

That’s not to say that individual performers don’t deserve a mention, and particular credit should go to Aoife Kennan, playing Penelope. In what was perhaps a minor case of stage fright, she spoke too quickly at times, throwing away lines that had real comic potential, but when she slowed down, her delivery was witty, intelligent and conveyed utter vulnerability. Her scenes with Jake Spence, playing Odysseus, were particularly effective, and his offhand threats, delivered in the domestic space of their bedroom, were deeply unsettling.

Working with such an overtly theatrical piece calls gave the technical directors room to run amok, and the constantly changing lighting effects were fantastic. From the solitary spotlight of the opening to the harsh red of the powerful rape scene, each lighting decision was well justified and executed. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the music. Whilst the contemporary element was a nice touch, it was often too loud and drowned out the dialogue. The singing of the maids and Penelope (accompanied on the guitar by one of the suitors) was much more effective; not only well-sung but beautifully haunting.

Overall, the play had its moments of brilliance, despite a few first-night nerves and a lack of comic timing.  But what should have been the climatic scene, the death of the maids, was bathetic, cast to one side of the stage and left me feeling emotionally detached. However, Atwood’s drama is compelling and the performances generally strong. The Penelopiad is inventive, different and at times, a triumph – for that reason, surely, it’s worth leaving the library.