Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo
Written by Margaret Atwood
Starring Penny Downie, Kate Hennig and Sarah Malin
At the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, until Aug. 18
Compared to her previous two previous novels, The Blind Assassin (2000) and Oryx and Crake (2003), Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (2005) is a remarkably short book. A fast but careful reader can go through her contribution to the international revisionist frenzy called the Myth Series in two hours or less.
Atwood's stage adaptation of The Penelopiad, which received its world premiere on Thursday in Stratford-upon-Avon in a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Ottawa's National Arts Centre, runs for about 100 minutes with no intermission. So in strictly material terms, it takes about as long to "consume" Atwood's retelling of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, a wife abandoned by her "heroic" husband for 20 years during and after the Trojan War, on the stage as it does on the page.
If it's a coincidence, it's at least understandable. Recycling the rhythm of your own work as it shifts from one medium to another is inevitable. There's much of the book that, line for line, can be heard and seen on stage, and both begin and end at exactly the same spot. To see The Penelopiad after reading it is, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again. But when you've written such a startling opening sentence for Penelope as, "Now that I'm dead I know everything," you'd be a fool not to recognize its theatrical possibilities immediately.
The strength of this Penelopiad, however, lies in director Josette Bushell-Mingo's paradoxical knack for following closely in Atwood's authorial footsteps and trampling all over them. While the production was still showing its growing pains by opening night, it literally leaped off the Swan Theatre's thrust stage whenever the director dragged the playwright-novelist out of her shell.
It doesn't take long to spot a pattern. Atwood is irreverent; Bushell-Mingo is outrageous. Atwood gives Penelope's 12 slain maids a voice; Bushell-Mingo lets them twist and shout. Atwood casts the character of Helen of Troy as a citizen of the spoiled-brat nation; Bushell-Mingo makes her their reigning queen, Paris Hilton. It makes for much more exciting theatre to see playwright and director wrestling with the same material and, intellectually speaking, each other.
Another dynamic which makes the book's transition to the stage refreshingly original is Bushell-Mingo's insistence on showing what Atwood tells. With help from her fine all-female cast of Canadian and British actors, led by a divine Penny Downie as Penelope, Bushell-Mingo literally gives words a physical shape. Her scene composition is drawn from theatre for sure (Brecht's estate should demand royalties for any number of copyright infringements or, as they called them nowadays, homages), but it incorporates ancient Greek art and contemporary action movies with fluidity.
Aided by Veronica Tennant's delicately balletic and aggressively kickass choreography, the 12 actors playing the maids (and all other male and female roles) leave little room for doubt that this is their chance to tell their forgotten story. Just try to stop them. I wish Bushell-Mingo invested more time on their emotional condition as she did on their physical one. Ironically - and this is a problem in both the book and the play - the 12 maids remain as generic and unknowable at the end as they are at the beginning.
The production's focus on Penelope is ultimately what lends it its beating heart. Not only is she the narrator, telling her story long after death, but the one entrusted to navigate the tale's examination of marriage as sanctioned rape, of slavery as a right, and of motherhood as an excuse for noble suffering. Odysseus, played here by Sarah Malin, may have sailed seas, but it's Downie's Penelope who makes the greater theatrical journey. Atwood lets Penelope have a few more last words than any of the previous tellers of this ancient tale, but that doesn't mean she absolves her completely for the hanging of her 12 maids by her own husband and son. Downie brings complicity, doubt and guilt to her Penelope, emphasizing that Atwood is interested in more than just a feminist view of a classically virtuous female character.
It's a constantly rewarding performance. The same can't be said about other aspects of the production. As with all new work of an adventurous nature, it was clear that time has run out on its creative team. The bulk of the original work takes place in the first hour. The remaining 40 minutes are not without moments of power - a rape scene featuring Jenny Young as a victim is horrific - but Bushell-Mingo begins to fall back on narration to get through the story. When word comes of the fall of Troy, an otherwise impressive Kate Hennig merely transmits it, more like a report than a turning point in the drama.
But if this is bad news for the current run, it can only be good for the Canadian premiere in Ottawa next month. The Penelopiad is, for better or worse, theatre-in-the-making. It had come a long way by opening night, but it still has more to go.
By the time it crosses the Atlantic, therefore, it will bring with it more emotional focus and undoubtedly even more resourcefulness. The birth may have been difficult but this baby is well on its way to a new life on our shores. For once, we in Canada can say that a show had its out-of-town tryouts in England. Man, that feels good.