Penelope is mainly known as the wife of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, a king and warrior who first spent ten years in the Trojan war and then another ten struggling to find his way home to Ithaca – monsters aimed to destroy him and gods tried to prevent his return home, aiming to keep him forever in their reign. Meanwhile, Penelope raised their son alone and gained a high reputation for her patience, endurance and resistance. Punkt Collective calls her the loneliest woman in the world. Constantly surrounded by staff, serving her crown for generations, she observes their moral downfall. Worse even are the many uninvited suitors who treat Penelope after years of waiting not with the respect she as a queen or widow (the latter she refuses to be) deserves – instead, she is seen as a young bride, mainly desired for title and fortune. Even Odysseus will test her dutifulness and loyalty disguised before revealing himself after his return – but of this Homeric background we learn nothing tonight.
Penelope sits on an almost bare stage and plays with a ball of wool, unravelling and re-ravelling it. Fellow actors and stagehands join her one after another, compare her with a cat and then chitchat about dreams and that finally dreaming in another language means getting the jist of it. A female voice from the off talks randomly over them, and a bit too loud. About sushi, pyjamas and life admi. Now everyone has arrived, the stage gets set up: Tripods and a bed sheet make a canvas for projections and from now on Penelope is followed by a hand camera. Then another male voice from the off addresses the Muse in those famous words introducing The Odyssey, canonical as the first paragraphs of the Bible or the Edda.
Laying down, Penelope dreams and while we see her close-up projected on the wall, shadow play and puppetry present strong moments when Odysseus has her on a thread, on the short lead, and the suitors’ hands grab after her from all sides. She weaves strings between her fingers to win time, but her cunning wits are all she has as protection for her dignity as a wife, as a queen and woman; she is only a human and no witch, nymph or demigoddess her husband has affairs with while away. Again, if you have not read Homer or a retelling, you will not learn about this here; Emily Wilson’s recent translation is one of two books laying on stage all evening.
Penelope’s famous eagle vision sums up her dream in a full dance routine of Village People’s Macho Macho Man – Mr. Eagle appears in the lyrics and Odysseus is the eagle in her dream, returning after two decades of battles and affairs. Obvious, isn’t it? Or is this more the general observation, that one can be bored enough to hum or even dance to music, one usually hates? That happens to everyone occasionally but still, Penelope would have had much more stories to share. Maybe she is too bored to find the enthusiasm to tell them tonight. That also happens when you are truly bored. Penelope dismantles the stage props and then returns to playing with her yarn.
*** out of 5 stars
Punkt Presents Penelope is devised and performed by the following members of the collective: Abigail Hirsch, Aida Rocci, Antonia Georgieva, Oliver McFadden and Talia Kracauer
Penelope ran at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until mid-March, tickets from £10