A Matter of Perspective
History is all about perspective. Winston Churchill famously stated that “history is written by the victors,” and that has been true for generations. It is only relatively recently, in this era of mass communications and reconciliation, that we are exposed to other points of view, other experiences, and a less uniform – or, in a Western case, less colonial – recounting of history.
The Penelopiad offers a new perspective on a well-documented history – and one that cleverly layers multiple perspectives showing that even those who feel themselves the most oppressed can, in turn, become oppressors in their own right.
The majority of The Penelopiad takes place during Odysseus’ time away from Ithaca, famously recounted in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. But while that story is well known, Odysseus’ wife Penelope has historically been a much less nuanced character – known for her faithfulness and her ingenuity. In Margaret Atwood’s play – subtly and effectively directed by Megan Follows – we explore a recounting of this time from the perspective of Penelope herself, reflecting upon her life and experiences in the afterlife.
As she states early on, it is not an all-seeing, all-knowing view. Death does not afford her ultimate knowledge, but rather allows her additional information in the form of whispers – the sack of words that one carries to Hades after death. Yet, despite this additional knowledge, we discover that Penelope remains blind to how the foundation of her story – a history of faithfulness built upon the sacrifice of the innocent – impacted others. As she is an afterthought to the legend of Odysseus (and, often, the legend of Helen), so too are her “12” – the maids who are compelled, through slavery and through faith, to sacrifice their souls and bodies in support of Penelope’s plans, afterthoughts to their master’s story.
Weighty topics for sure – and the topic alone may make casual viewers wary, especially those who dreaded mandatory readings of Homer from the school days. Yet The Penelopiad is surprisingly light. Seana McKenna is outstanding in her role as Penelope, wonderfully portraying the character as a child bride of 15, all the way through to her current spirit life in Hades. We recognize, visually, that McKenna is not a teenager, but she deftly uses her physicality and lightness of disposition to portray those times.
McKenna is the glue that holds this story together. She’s able to go from angst and pathos in one moment, to sharing a wink-and-a-nod with the audience in another. Her Penelope is one who has seen it all and brings a sense of gallows humour to the proceeding.
Also, viewers of traditional Greek epic poetry may be surprised by the amount of musical numbers and choreography present in the play. To be fair, the songs were passable – they didn’t derail the production and did help to move the story along, but the music felt a little dated and pedestrian.
Though set in Hades and presented on a darkened stage flanked by Ionic columns (they could be Doric – architecture is not my specialty), the production included a number of light-hearted, yet well-thought-out inclusions of contemporary touches. As the cast played multiple roles – from goats, to maids, to suitors circling Penelope, believing Odysseus’ continued absence meant his death – there was the need to provide subtle (and amazingly quick-changeable) clues as to new characters. Tess Benger, playing Odysseus and Penelope’s son Telemachus, would appear wearing a baseball hat, or carrying a skateboard (in his rebellious teenage years, of course). They could have felt out of place given the context, but they were presented with the right combination of absurdity and confidence to make it all feel natural.
For the most part, the stage presentation was immaculate. The stage featured the aforementioned columns and clever work with scaffolding to make beds, chariots, and boats. The lighting was pitch-perfect and provided just enough illumination to allow the audience to see into the recesses of the stage, whilst still embracing the idea of a story crafted from memory, told from the underworld.
Only one element stood out as being glaringly inappropriate and took away from a beautiful moment. The digital screen effect was used a few times in the production – often to highlight any discussions of water (as Penelope is half Naiad). Though this element really wasn’t necessary, it’s forgivable. However, later on in the production, the maids and Penelope are in the midst of a hypnotically beautiful bit of choreography – undoing by night what was done in the day. With their motion, legs, and choreographed movement, we are shown them unravelling the shroud. Alone, it was a beautiful moment – but then a giant digital presentation of a weave being “deleted” dominated the stage. It was a unnecessarily hamfisted approach that undermined the beautifully simple choreography that it overwhelmed.
Overall, though, The Penelopiad presents a refreshingly unexpected presentation of Greek literature – injecting humour, music, movement, and contemporary elements to accentuate and elevate a classic story.