Megan Follows (l) and Bahia Watson (photo credit: Robert Popkin)
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Staging The Penelopiad
by Kelly Thornton
As the Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre, it has been an epic journey to produce Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, but as Canada’s premiere feminist theatre, I don’t think there is a more fitting play for our company to have brought to the stage.
The power of Atwood’s The Penelopiad is that her Penelope, captured in myth as the archetypical woman of virtue, chastely waiting for a long absent husband, is constructed as a wholly contemporary voice. Now with two thousand years of knowledge, of ongoing misrepresentation, of being made a grotesque example, “a stick used to beat other women ” into servitude, comes this outspoken messenger.
Her voice is potent not only because it reframes The Odyssey, arguably the most popular myth of all time but because it calls into question the “heroic actions” of Odysseus. Rather than validating the existing social order, as myth had traditionally served to do, The Penelopiad dissects the ethics of such actions filtering it through such issues as gender and class. Here Atwood steps out from behind the tall shadow of patriarchal myth-making to “spin a thread of her own”.
The Penelopiad shines a bright light on the voicelessness of women.
In the rehearsal process at Nightwood we have often referred to the hanging of the twelve maids as an honour killing. These twelve young slaves who served Penelope, distracting her unwieldy suitors, first with their cunning and later with their sex, were their mistress’ front line. They protected her while she in turn sought to protect her husband’s good name. But upon Odysseus’ return he is compelled to cleanse his palace of this filth. In The Odyssey they are disposed of in short order, never given names, their murders unjustified. They are dispensed of without a second thought.
Megan Follows and the ensemble (photo: Robert Popkin)
The Penelopiad shines a bright light on the voicelessness of women. In history, in myth, in culture, the truth of women’s lives was at best reduced to two-dimensional portraits of trustworthy wives and at worst ignored altogether. But Atwood in her contemporary voice calls into question this perpetual devaluation and dehumanization. And in her most provocative of ways she reflects this not only as a question of gender but of class. Penelope grapples with her own culpability for their deaths. And though she defends that she raised them like her daughters, she confronts how little value she attached to them, even as they sacrificed for her.
The play also exposes how societal constructs victimize us, and not just the women. As Telemachus’ rites of passage is to string up the young maids upon his father’s orders he assumes a male violence expected of him and perpetuated by his father as warrior. It is how power is defined, gained and passed on.
As the director, staging The Penelopiad was its own odyssey.
As myth springs from oral tradition so Atwood has constructed a storyteller’s theatre and my ensemble of powerhouse women have relished in the sense of theatricality The Penelopiad provides. As Penelope’s story is punctured by the lowly characters of the Greek chorus, through song, dance, the influence of Satyr plays, comic playlets meant to mock the main action, we have feasted on the sheer audacity of the storytelling. And we have pursued it with an invention to match its wit.
As the director, staging The Penelopiad was its own odyssey. Upon a casting process that saw 1000 résumés, 100 auditions and finally assembling together 13 of the most talented women on stage, we set to work on concept. Set and Costume Designer, Denyse Karn and I immersed ourselves deep in Atwood’s world. Discussing the feel and look of what our Hades may be and what the asphodel meant to our design.
In this storytelling theatre we approached the style of the piece through the body, a physical theatre inspired by Théâtre de Complicité, and Jacques Le Coq where mime is incorporated.
We are producing the show at Buddies in Bad Times, Main Chamber space and took full advantage of its flexibility, opening up the room to include the anti-chamber dressed in white to evoke the bright halls of the asphodel. When Penelope enters we have created an epic journey towards her audience, revealed by a barrier lifting and smoke billowing forth. She is crossing time to speak to us.
In this storytelling theatre we approached the style of the piece through the body, a physical theatre inspired by Théâtre de Complicité, and Jacques Le Coq where mime is incorporated. Rather than bulky props, the empty space is animated through its players. In one scene the maids literally become the table and chairs where the Ithacan royal family dines. This not only creates a functional set that can dissolve as easily as it has been arranged but one that also supports thematically a place of servitude, of dehumanization in the maids.
Another example is in Sailing to Ithaca where the performers create the ship and its voyage. My first image was of Penelope as the masthead (traditionally a female image symbolizing luck to guide the journey). We see her body objectified here, contorted and bobbing in the waves while Odysseus stands tall above, his robes raised as the sail to catch the wind, his foot firmly resting on the shoulder of one of his maids, while the rest of the chorus evokes the waves and sailors battling the sea.
Inspired by Alexander McQueen we sought overtly theatrical costumes that could also double as the set dressing.
The costume design further reinforces the physical theatre and here Karn has outdone herself. Inspired by Alexander McQueen we sought overtly theatrical costumes that could also double as the set dressing. The train of Penelope’s wedding dress becomes the table-cloth at the wedding feast. Helen’s gorgeous train becomes the bedspread on the bed where the couple will consummate. Nodding to Odysseus’ fantasies of Helen, she literally disrobes in front of him to cloth the bed and in so doing transforms back into a maid, set to the task of making up the bed-chamber.
In Act Two the suitors arrive to woo the abandoned Queen. We conceived them as young bucks, literally sporting horned shoulders, rutting at times in competition for her hand.
In the end this production’s success lies in the alchemy of our team of artists...
All this is supported by the huge talents of both my choreographer Monica Dottor and by composer Suba Sankaran. Dottor has challenged my actors to step up as dancers, creating some fabulous vaudevillian romps in Sankaran’s playful Wily Odysseus as well as beautifully simple choral work that evokes the weaving and unweaving of the royal shroud in Penelope scheme to keep her suitors at bay. Lighting designer extraordinaire, Kim Purtell lit the moody halls of Hades with gorgeous shafts and beams that give an other-worldly quality to the space.
In the end this production’s success lies in the alchemy of our team of artists, from Atwood’s potent text, to the brilliant design team, the choreographer, the composer and our stellar cast of actors who embody this modern myth-telling with gusto.
It is rare to have been given such a gift as this story, these themes, and the talents of so many women to give voice to the voiceless. We are thrilled to finally share it with an audience and bring Atwood’s powerful message home.