penelopiadThe Penelopiad is the tails-side of a coin with Odysseus’s face on it. It’s the domestic story behind the Homeric epic, following the life of Penelope, left on Ithaca with her son Telemachus, waiting for the return of her conquering husband. As such, there’s a big human appeal to this story, but in this production from the Cambridge Shortlegs some pretty staid writing and some pretty jumbled performances get in its way.

This might come as a surprise, given that both the original book and the stage adaptation were written by Margaret Atwood. The problem here is perhaps in the transition from novel to play; there’s simply not enough dramatic tension to bring the story to life. This is largely because, aside from Penelope herself, the play is dominated by a large chorus of maids whose parts are written in pretty deadened verse. The audience is supposed to feel Penelope’s guilt towards them when they are raped by the suitors, but neither the ordinary choreography nor their wooden lines are sufficient to fully engage.

The problems with the writing are made more severe by some unfocused direction. There’s a significant tonal inconsistency in this production: we’re shown a thoughtful, mature and convincing Penelope (Aoife Kennan), whose performance is undermined and made to look self-important by the suitor characters. The production veers between deadly-seriousness and crass self-parody, which diffuses any atmospheric intensity or emotional engagement. The performers tend to move towards parody at moments when their acting might not be up to the job: an example of this is when Odysseus reveals himself, brandishing a flimsy plastic bow, the suitors cowering in horror. Immediately after this inane over-acting, Penelope’s unchaste maids are slaughtered.

This sort of insensitive direction is the Scylla to an unforgiving script’s Charybdis – the result is a production that doesn’t quite manage to stay afloat.

The Penelopiad played at C (Venue 34) as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.