“How dare you bring the world into this”
Enda Walsh’s Penelope is a modern reimagining and refocusing of Homer’s Odyssey, taking as its main subject the wife of Odysseus who, whilst waiting for her husband to return, was entertained by over 100 suitors whom she kept at bay for over 20 years. Walsh picks up the story on the day before Odysseus returns, with the last four remaining men kept in a disused swimming pool next to Penelope’s palatial home, desperate for one last chance to win her hand.
Densely poetic, the language is chillingly beautiful at times, none more so than with Niall Buggy’s hoarsely intonated speech about the ‘real’ world. Each actor though is given the opportunity to shine as they each plead for Penelope’s hand, all too aware of the fast-approaching consequences of Odysseus’ return and unable to hide the desperation they all feel. Walsh depicts the senselessness of pursuing competition recklessly to the end, taking aim at perceived notions of masculinity and by extension, the state of Ireland today.
But such a focus on the enigmatically multi-layered text became a little wearing, even over the relatively short running time, it just got a bit too relentless and I longed for more of a dramatic impetus, for something to happen even it was just more of the superb ensemble work with its beautifully detailed and amusing interactions: the little mime sequence was just hilarious. And my wish was indeed granted with a dizzyingly frantic quick-change show from the fearless Karl Shiels, ripping through famous lovers from history and a breathlessly intense finale.
Mikel Murfi’s production is remarkable in the performances it has teased out here and Sabine Dargent’s set fits in perfectly, end-on at the Hampstead, suggesting neatly the Beckettian desolation that lies at the heart of the play. Altogether it was impressively unique, not immediately to my taste in its wilful opaqueness but thought-provoking nonetheless and a play which I think would bear repeated re-readings – the playtext programme is just £3 and probably well worth it.