20 November 2013, Varsity Online Culture Section
Homer’s story of Odysseus, the Trojan hero and model of masculinity, is almost universally known in the West: the brave soldier endeavouring to return home to Ithaca, the battles with sirens and sea creatures he faces, and the paradigm of all wifely goodness, Penelope, waiting on her isle with tapestry in hand. It was in the second wave of feminism that Margaret Atwood brought the paradigm’s voice to the world with The Penelopiad, and it seems entirely appropriate that in this third wave of feminism we should have Penelope’s perspective put under the spotlights by a fresher cast at the ADC theatre.
Penelope, played by Aoife Kennan, and her fellow characters narrate their role in the myth from Hades, and it is evident that the cast and crew have been going through a day in Hades when I meet them the day before the play opens. Georgie Henley, who has been cast as Eurycleia, has been taken seriously ill and director-turned-understudy de Ferrer has been manically learning all her lines within the space of three hours. Nonetheless, everything is now going smoothly, a feat which the director attributes to her cast who have worked ceaselessly on the music, movement and prose to bring this production to life.
The themes of perspective and voice, as well as the novelty of inverting the almost sacred text of Homer, were what excited de Ferrer about directing this play, her first in Cambridge. Having read the Odyssey, and being an Atwood fan herself, she was interested in how Atwood had “taken something that was a mere footnote in Homer’s original”, the vicious hanging of Penelope’s twelve maids, and “created a whole backstory.” For de Ferrer, she has given these women who “had no name, had no face”, a voice.
The feminist credentials of the play have been a great source of interest, particularly Atwood’s subtlety with them. For de Ferrer, these centre on the realism of the characters, who challenge the stale, conventional image of women presented by Homer. “Penelope says in the opening speech how she has become an edifying legend, a stick used to beat other women with,” says de Ferrer. Through her Brechtian, stripped-down staging, she has attempted to draw attention to the words the actors utter and their meaning, taking voice as the central aspect of the play.
The Atwood text, which has very little stage direction, is the perfect play for this director to “bend and really play with”, as it has enabled her to bring in her love of physical theatre. Movement and music inspired by Baz Luhrman’s soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, as well as some original pieces choreographed by the cast pervade the production. The effect of this innovation is such that The Penelopiad should have the shear physical emotionality of a ballet in its “movement which animates text”,challenging the idea of Homer’s static women from the outset.
The production took inspiration from the National Theatre’s recent production of Antigone, in which the chorus move and chant in discord while still remaining a cohesive unit. The aim in The Penelopiad is to individuate the characters, while signalling their common struggle with class and gender which is still relevant today. The director does not wish to sanitise the play. For instance, there is a rape scene which is played out in the style of a “frenzied tango” which conveys more than perhaps a one line of dialogue ever could.
By directing this play, de Ferrer hopes she will be able to encourage others to perform more physical theatre in Cambridge, which she believes is sorely lacking. Having seen the ease with which she and the cast have blended simple but effective movement with Atwood’s punch packing words almost faultlessly, I can only hope she will succeed.