Review: Punkt Presents Penelope, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

The concept behind Punkt Presents Penelope is a great one. For anyone unfamiliar with Greek classics, Odysseus fights in the Trojan War for ten years, then takes another ten years to return. Punkt is more interested in his wife Penelope, who spends twenty years waiting for her husband, unsure of his fate, and fighting off myriad suitors determined to wed her. For Punkt, it’s time to focus on one of the loneliest women in classical history.

Except not straight away. Penelope has a highly confusing start, with the actors seeming to play themselves for opening minutes.  As Punkt’s website explains, “we put ourselves at the centre of our work and draw on textual sources, both classical and autobiographical, to investigate the boundaries of performance.” But this is not clear early on. Although some themes are addressed, the ‘actors’ discuss their dreams and the four female members of the cast (Abigail Hirsch, Aida Rocci, Antonia Georgieva, Talia Kracauer) wait for the only male member (Oliver McFadden). This is for the most part uninteresting and impenetrable. 

Things do pick up as the story begins proper. A description of Odysseus’ journey from the Odyssey plays over the top of the actors’ silent portrayal of waiting, but the words morph into those of Penelope. It’s a clear message of what Punkt is doing, wrestling classical narratives into a new light.

Strong imagistic work follows, as we enter the world of Penelope’s dreams. Using a white sheet and torch, silhouettes portray poignant images of the separation of Odysseus and Penelope, as well as his journey and her pursual by suitors. Memories that are clearly haunting Penelope. The silhouettes do create an ethereal and dreamlike quality, while excellent sound effects are employed to heighten them. However, this comes at a cost, as the cast take a long time to set up the staging and return to their autobiographical characters as they do so, which feels far too big of an interruption of a story that just got going.

The most traditional element of the play comes when Kracauer, as Penelope, delivers a monologue of the final few pages of Ulysses (another re-telling of the Odyssey). Speaking as Molly Bloom, Kracauer performs eloquently and imbues her speech with emotion. But even this is mutated as Kracauer delivers her monologue while reading a copy of Ulysses, thereby reminding us all that this is a classical narrative being inverted, but also not giving the audience enough credit to have that recognition themselves.

This is a pattern that runs throughout the play. It’s a work that is exceedingly post-modern, but that causes a lot of downfalls. Punkt steadfastly refuse to let the story settle, instead constantly reminding us that we are watching a constructed performance – for example their autobiographical elements that percolate the play, and the odd decision to have a live video of the play on the wall which at times films the audience (and also ventures backstage during a costume change). These are challenging elements that dictate the shape of the play but do not earn their place beyond being tricks to add layers of theatre. I applaud Punkt for a brave experiment and view them as an energetic company with ideas on how to make our classics more relevant. But this play also feels disparate, a symptom of the company’s self-defined ‘non-hierarchal structure’, meaning there is no writer or director but a group-owned piece. This feels like a work that has too many voices contributing, and while that may develop into something more profound and important in future, Punkt’s Penelope feels like a learning experience. 

Punkt Presents Penelope is playing The Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see The Lion and Unicorn website.