On one level, Enda Walsh’s PENELOPE is just a modernization of an episode from The Odyssey. Four suitors – living at the bottom of a drained out swimming pool on Odysseus’s Adriatic estate – vie for the affections of Penelope in advance of her husband’s homecoming – finally! – from the Trojan War. They continue to woo her despite the terrible revenge that they expect to suffer upon his return, which is thought to be imminent.
The anachronism and ridiculousness of the setting, along with the video and audio technology that has been set up for their respective suits, makes for considerable amusement and the exploration of the contradictions of male bonding – they are simultaneously bitter rivals and best buddies. This alternates with the genuine poetry of their blandishments and the remarkable power of Penelope when she appears above them to hear their serenades. Hers is the strongest presence on the stage despite the fact that she says not a single word (shades of Strindberg’s The Stronger).
This points us to the fact that on a deeper level – or in a broader sense – the play does with The Odyssey something like what Caryl Churchill does with legendary figures and historical periods in works such as Top Girls and Cloud Nine. The contemporary and the historical are collapsed; the personages are denied the sentimental or heroic content we are conditioned to expect; instead they come to embody crude political power and its relation to sex, violence, and coercion; yet that elusive something that we think of as “the human” still yanks at our sympathies.
I admired this play on all of its levels, and the production equally as much. Put off at first by the crudeness, I was ultimately captured by the poetry, and then by the thematic content, disturbing as it is both in the direct experience of it and in the recollection.
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