Homer's Penelope has long been a paragon of wifely devotion. She's the one who waited twenty years on the goat-strewn island of Ithaca for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan War, cleverly putting off the small army of suitors who arrived to claim her hand.
She has been a model for faithful wives ever since. But in Margaret Atwood's witty and incredibly erudite retelling of the story, she'd rather she were not. "Don't follow my example," she pleads.
Penelope's devotion to her husband cost the lives of twelve innocents, her maids, executed by Odysseus for fraternizing with the suitors. Now in Hades, Penelope is haunted by these lost women, women who were in her care and who she let down at the last moment. The Penelopiad, then, is a cautionary tale.
This Stork Theatre Production gives beautiful, bantering, tragic form to Atwood's poetic drama. Director Greg Carroll frames the story as a cabaret show, Club Asphodel, and in this he discovers the perfect stage language for Atwood's comic sophistication and undernote of sadness.
Carolyn Bock as Penelope, face in white paint, is sharp-tongued and ghoulishly funny, but also tender and touchingly pathetic. This is a woman ‑ Penelope ‑ whose life began with her father trying to drown her, someone who learned the safety of discretion and reserve at an early age. Yet Bock allows herself a wonderfully open relationship with the audience, spoofing in mime her years as a dutiful wife and reserved noblewoman. It's as though death has liberated her, revealing to her the real nature of the trap that she ‑ along with so many other women ‑ was born into. As she says, with irony: "Now that I'm dead I know everything."
The chorus of maids ‑ here Jane Barry, Andi Snelling and Mia Landgren ‑ are compellingly morbid caricatures, by turns sexy, caustic and finally baleful. There are also fine impressions of the clever, gangsterish Odysseus, Ithaca's officious nursemaid Eurycleia and the hyper sexual Helen (assuaging her guilt over the Trojan War with a peepshow for the fallen warriors).
The show is dotted with musical numbers, songs performed by the chorus of maids, which, although not necessarily program highlights in themselves, are pulled off with plenty of cabaret flair.
The Penelopiad is as funny as it is intelligent and there are many jokes worthy of the wily Odysseus and his equally wily wife. The name "Penelope", for example, is believed to be derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning "some kind of bird". Atwood thus stick her heroine with the all too apt nickname "Ducky". But the humour here can equally be bawdy.
This is a cleanly framed, and extremely persuasive production, with set and lighting by Peter Corrigan and Rebecca Etchell respectively, both experienced designers of the first water. It ranks alongside other Stork Theatre triumphs of days gone by, and is a highlight for the year.