Eros and Death in a Swimming Pool


Program for Red Stitch's Penelope

Program for Red Stitch’s Penelope

Enda Walsh: Penelope. Production by Red Stitch at Theatreworks, Acland St., St. Kilda
Date seen: 11 April 2013

Enda Walsh’s play Penelope, is yet another reworking of the final scenes of the Odyssey, this time modernised (as it often is: Joyce and Atwood come to mind) and told from the point of view of the suitors, which is definitely a new angle.

The suitors are a contrasting bunch: the ageing queen, Dunne, played by Dion Mills (who was not fat enough for the role, but what do you do in an ensemble?); the young and vulnerable bull-ee (Matt Whitty); the platonising scholar, Fitz (James Wardlaw), and the thug-like villain Quinn (Lyall Brooks). As an ensemble, they were a study in ugly, funny or sad masculinities and, apart from Quinn, they all abandoned comfortable roles as the stakes, both erotic and mortal, became higher, with their language becoming tender and more real.  It was as if they could finally abandon their socially invented and artificial roles as they found new ways to woo Penelope. She herself was a non-speaking ice-queen, located well above the seedy, tawdry, junk-littered swimming pool that was the main part of the set. Unattainable. Keeping her power to herself, and never uttering a word, but conveying her delight in her husband’s return, and abhorrence of the boyos’ violence in pursuit of her love.

The play was very ‘in-yer-face’.  The four male actors were almost naked in budgie-smugglers, and I must say I found this rather distracting, though I could see the point of it as a reverse objectification – Penelope was unknowable except for her beauty, but the situation was inverted with the men. They assumed that their bodies would win her, at least initially. In this play, the trope of romance was inverted: it was man-flesh on offer to Penelope, who was much more moved when the three good men showed their real feelings than she was by their rippling biceps and six-packs.  The issue of wooing as a male prerogative and as power-play was very compellingly unpacked in the play, though it trod a knife-edge because of the ways in which bodies were endlessly preened and displayed as if on a catwalk, and the satire and irony was easy to misinterpret. I thought for a long time that the director, Alister Smith, was simply being self-indulgent: one had to wait for the more soulful aspects of the three good men to be displayed.

One of the high points of the play occurred at the end, when the inarticulate bully, Quinn, staged his version of five love stories in a burlesque style, with dancing and music, bad wigs, rough costume-changes and cross-dressing to match. It was quite hilarious, and functional. The burlesque elements reminded me of the fact that the story of Penelope’s love for Odysseus is one of a very few ancient prototypes of the love paradigm, and there were some funny variations on the theme in invoking not only the usual suspects (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon and Josephine) but also some modern ones (Rhett and Scarlet O’Hara and the doomed lovers of the film,Titanic). The sixth narrative, the tale of Odysseus returning to slay the suitors, provided a neat and satisfying ending, and spared us the violence we knew was coming. We’d had enough anyway, in the fight scenes, which could have done with more choreography.

I had a few quarrels with this production: I found it over-produced, with its huge and busy junkyard-in-a-swimming-pool set.  You can do junkyard and make it visually appealing, without losing the brutaliste feel (Michael Kantor’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days for Malthouse in 2009 was set in a dump, and looked fabulous and was strictly functional). Peter Mumford’s set design was just plain ugly and, like the swimmers, kept distracting.  The author may have required such attention to detail and the evocation of a male world in chaos as a result of too much power-play, but more care should have been taken in assembling the elements.  It made making a case for love very difficult indeed. The eyrie-like bower of Penelope was a welcome contrast, and elegant.  On balance, I think the Shakespearean principle of relying on audience’s imagination a very fine one.  For cash-strapped companies and even rich ones, let’s give designers a different brief: go simpler (on principle of ‘less is more’), trust the audience, and perhaps pay the creative personnel more.

So, a troubling and thought-provoking play, and well worth the look, but one had to be patient with it! It is not as self-indulgent as it seems, but it did take a while to gather its force.

Frances is on the editorial board of Tinteán, and has been a theatre reviewer for many decades.