STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England — Twelve angry women are providing the inspiration for “The Penelopiad,” the first-ever co-production between England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and Canada’s National Arts Center.
The show, adapted by Margaret Atwood from her novel of the same name, runs at the RSC’s Swan Theater Aug. 2-18, then tours to Newcastle-upon-Tyne from Sept. 3-8 before crossing the Atlantic to play at the NAC in Ottawa Sept. 19-Oct. 7.
The irate dozen are not the actual members of the all-female production. The rage driving this production comes from the characters they are playing: the 12 maids of Penelope in “The Odyssey” — strangled by her husband Odysseus when he returns home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
Although their murders are given only a fleeting mention in the original ancient Greek work, Atwood says: “They always haunted me. I wanted to find out why they had to die.”
Her critically acclaimed book was a kind of postmodern detective story, dipping in and out of various styles, complete with ballads and idylls for the maids to sing.
“As soon as I finished writing it in 2004, I thought it had the makings of a play,” Atwood says.
That fall, Brit director Phyllida Lloyd was in Toronto to mount the Canadian Opera Company production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on another Atwood work. The two of them started discussing the stage possibilities of “The Penelopiad,” which came to partial fruition at the time of the book’s 2005 publication.
“We piddled around for a while, and it all wound up with a staged reading, with three actresses, some music and me almost falling down the stairs,” Atwood laughs.
Atwood continued working on the script and began discussions with the National Arts Center’s new artistic director, Peter Hinton, because she admired his work.
The NAC secured the rights to the play in 2006, intending to produce it for its 40th anniversary season in 2008. But simultaneously, Deborah Shaw of the RSC had become fascinated with the stage possibilities of Atwood’s work. She gradually became involved in a co-production with the NAC, which was scheduled for summer 2007.
Penelope is being played by Australian-born RSC associate artist Penny Downie. Five of her 12 maids are British; the remaining seven are Canadian.
The director is Josette Bushell-Mingo, a multitalented artist whose work stretches from an Olivier nomination as a performer for “The Lion King” to her current position as artistic director of the National Deaf Theater of Sweden.
“I’m a very lucky lady, to have the best of two countries working on the show,” Bushell-Mingo says.
In addition to author Atwood and the seven maids, the Canadian contingent in Stratford also includes director-author Djanet Sears as creative fellow, renowned ballerina and choreographer Veronica Tennant as movement director and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher.
Atwood has been absent by choice, remaining in Canada and restricting herself to emails and videoconferencing during which the rewriting process has occurred.
“People can have too much of the author there,” Atwood believes. “I think it can be censoring.”
But she does plan to show up in Stratford later in the run. Maybe that night, the 12 angry maids will be smiling.