The Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s 2010 tragi-comedy Penelope draws on Homer’s Odyssey, in which Penelope waits twenty years for her husband Odysseus to return from his voyage. While he is absent, numerous suitors vie for the affections of the faithful wife. In Walsh’s modern-day version, there are four suitors remaining, isolated in the depths of a drained swimming pool, with signs of previous suitors and their blood in evidence. The future of the remaining four is not looking good.
The pool setting and the detritus it contains are as far away from the austerity of classical Greek drama as Walsh‘s wild Irish imagination could take it. Although the choice of a drained pool never makes sense, it lends an air of prison-like containment that is the perfect battleground for the sparring male egos and their bids for freedom. At the same time, it is the ideal setting for a comedy starring four assorted men in speedos wielding sausages, cocktails and twisties as they pace and pose, argue and demean themselves in front of Penelope (the lovely, enigmatic Rosie Lockhart), whose window overlooks the pool. What lesser playwrights would have rejected as a stupid idea for a setting, Walsh has developed, creating a world to explore masculinity, existential meaning and love.
In Red Stitch’s production, director Alister Smith has taken some liberties with the casting. Apart from the bookish Fitz (James Wardlaw), the men are mostly younger, and the corpulent Dunne is played by the svelte Dion Mills with camp enthusiasm – aggressive one minute, maudlin the next. The four characters contrast sharply, heightening the testosterone-fuelled drama and the different aspects of the male psyche.
The play gives huge scope for the actors, who are all adept at comedy and drama and switching between the two. As the bully, Quinn, Lyall Brooks fills the stage with his posturing and self-assurance, shifting in an instant to threats and violence. Apart from his explosive rages, his delivery of the lines is remarkably nuanced. Matt Whitty’s portrayal of the young Burns, who is most vulnerable to Quinn’s bullying, is also subtle, moving between powerless victim and worthy opponent. His mercurial performance in the cabaret routine is phenomenal.
Wardlaw, as the ageing intellectual Fitz, creates a high point in the play with his speech to Penelope, in which he is at first inarticulate, grasping for words, until he finds his voice with an exploration of the ‘nothingness’ in his nature. The individual speeches to Penelope create islands of lyricism and yearning in an otherwise bleak but hilarious scenario. Even Mills sheds Dunne’s sashaying persona (and the soundtrack of Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea) to stand motionless and tell a touching tale from his childhood.
When the tension has built nicely and we await more revelations from the suitors, props are moved to make way for a farcical cabaret routine depicting the history of romantic love in five acts. It is not made clear enough that this is Quinn’s offering to Penelope, so it seems superfluous. Funny as it is, it releases the dramatic tension to a point where it cannot be recovered. For this reason, Burns’ final speech to Penelope falls a little flat and our investment in the fate of the suitors is diminished.
If the ending is somewhat lacking in impact, the play as a whole is everything you could want in theatre: a meaty, articulate script, a universal theme, conflict, high drama and comedy, and a handful of colourful characters portrayed by fine actors stripped to their speedos. Much of what passes for contemporary theatre pales in comparison.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
by Enda Walsh
Director Alister Smith
Venue: TheatreWorks, 14 Acland St, St Kilda
Dates: 22 March - 13 April 2013