After its well-received premiere earlier this summer as the final presentation at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon before it closes for an extensive renovation, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” has come home to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to an even more enthusiastic response. This first-ever co-production between the RSC and the NAC neatly balances input from the two orgs, with casting and creative choices equally shared on both sides.
Atwood’s 2005 novel is inspired by a short passage in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” in which it’s indicated that — upon his return to Ithaca — Odysseus brutally lynched all 12 of his wife Penelope’s faithful maids. Rather than a conventional narrative, Atwood wrote a notebook of impressions and a stylized response from the women; this has proved the material’s strength on stage.
British actor-director Josette Bushell-Mingo (best known for her Olivier-winning turn in “The Lion King”) has used Atwood’s work as the jumping-off point for a series of intensely theatrical vignettes.
The all-female cast explores in depth their feelings of isolation during the men’s decades of absence as well as the unexpected betrayal they underwent when Odysseus and his men finally returned home.
Seemingly every kind of movement, music and inventive staging has been called into play, but, rather than appearing gratuitous, these diverse aspects ultimately fit together with the precision you would expect from an author like Atwood.
RSC veteran Penny Downie anchors the whole event as Penelope, with a virtuoso display of muscular technique coupled with yielding femininity. Her contribution is so pivotal it’s impossible to contemplate anyone else filling the role.
There are also excellent contributions from Kate Hennig, Kelly McIntosh and Mojisola Adebayo, but this is truly an ensemble effort and the overall effect of the group transcends any individual’s work.
There are plans to remount “The Penelopiad” and tour it through Canada. It is only hoped that much of this splendid international cast will be kept together, in particular the magical Downie.