Today’s post is brought you by the theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe guide (at last, I hear you cry). On my first flick through the show catalogue in June, my eye was drawn to two productions not because of the companies, the venues or the descriptions – but because of the source material.
The Penelopiad is adapted from a novella of the same name by Margaret Atwood, and relates the story of Odysseus’ young wife Penelope, focussing on the events that occur as she waits for her errant husband to return from his adventures (the ones that fill the pages of Homer’s Odyssey). Atwood is one of my favourite writers, so buying a ticket for the Cambridge Shortlegs’ production was a no-brainer. True to form, the script is stunning, powerful and loaded with emotion – perfect for the stage – and the actress playing Penelope embodies the distinctive narrative voice given to her. The twelve maids who support Penelope in her self-protective schemes form a fierce chorus, their anger rising as they suffer the consequences of her actions. The dramatic climax of the piece – their vicious rape by Penelope’s cheated suitors – is portrayed through a physical movement sequence, one of many that punctuate this production. These sections – which fuse dance, physical theatre and stage combat – are clearly intended to communicate aggression and anger, but often come across half-heartedly. Whilst their inclusion is a brave choice, I feel that physical theatre needs to be full throttle – if you spy an actor trying to cushion a fall, or cringing because they have to wrap their legs around someone, it stops being immersive and becomes painfully awkward to watch. But there is welcome comedy to lighten the intensity of the story, particularly in Penelope’s wry observations about her husband (‘it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness’), in Helen of Troy’s blatant bitchiness or in the nurse Eurycleia’s territorial behaviour. For me though, the inconsistent production prevents this piece from being as hard-hitting as it should be. The tiered staging doesn’t add anything to the action, and makes unobtrusive entrances and exits difficult; the physical theatre sections lack punch; and costumes vary wildly (Odysseus wears a suit and Penelope wears a modern summery dress, while her parents-in-law are draped in toga-like robes). The Penelopiad is definitely an interesting piece to watch – I can’t really say enjoyable, with the rape, execution and general mistreatment of women – but I’d like to see it staged differently.
Back Door, a new piece from The Off-Off-Off Broadway Company, has a lot of the same issues. It is described as a theatrical take on the iconic Hitchcock film, Rear Window – a statement which must have helped get people through the door, and certainly worked on me. Like The Penelopiad, the concept is interesting (hardly surprising given the stellar source material) – a female journalist in 1920s Paris, laid up with a broken leg, spies on her neighbour Violette and believes she has witnessed her commit murder. Tabitha Montgomery is an excellent protagonist – every bit as grumpy, stubborn and independent as her film counterpart – but the story sells her short. Unlike Hitchcock’s work, which sets Jimmy Stewart’s character up for an embarrassing fall only to reveal he was correct in his suspicions, there is no satisfying twist to Back Door. Violette turns out to be innocent – her partner has killed himself – and the ending instead becomes a moralising lecture on the dangers of assuming too much. I could forgive this straying from the original – after all, Back Door is not a copy but a piece in its own right – if it was my only objection. Unfortunately, the scenes do not run smoothly and often feel awkward, though there are plenty of laughs in the script. Tabitha’s flat, the only set, is beautifully detailed, but the three rectangular panels in the backdrop that create the windows are too big a gap and allow the audience to see Violette coming on and off stage. Restricting the window space to just one central panel would focus the audience’s gaze and reveal less – which as we all know, means more. It’s not an easy effect to create in such a small theatre though, and the company stage the piece well overall, with film projections onto the backdrop adding another interesting element.
Creating a new take on an established film/play epic poem might attract people to your show, but it presents obstacles of its own – audiences expect more and if you can’t deliver, they end up disappointed.
Right, I’m off to watch Rear Window and buy The Penelopiad on Amazon.