Penelope – Kate Gaul brings the audience deep into the Enda Walsh pool. (Theatre Review)

Penelope is such a large play, so sprawling in its scope, that (surprisingly for a writer) Enda Walsh ends up leaving a great deal open for the assimilation of director, actor and audience, restraining himself to the grandiose words, relinquishing much of the structure and message to others. Walsh always likes to examine humans trapped in their own mythology, and he’s taken this to an extreme in Penelope, where he returns to Homer’s Odyssey, splashing about in a giant pooling of human ignorance with Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. One of the most compelling of subjects in our current day and age is the various mythologies of masculinity still (bizarrely) apparent in contemporary society, but (and here is the where the Beckett comes into play) one wonders what else one is going to do while one is waiting to die?

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Four men swagger about at the bottom of a drained pool. They are the last survivors of the one hundred and eight who vied for Penelope’s hand while her husband Odysseus, the consummate man’s man, is away at war, and they interpret their survival in terms of ability and skill rather than sheer luck of the draw. The four men represent different components, and competing aspects of masculine mythology, with Quinn (Nicholas Hope) a dog-eat-dog macho muscle strut of a man, Dunne (Arky Michael) the rotund gourmand with the cheeky over-the-top appreciation for the finer things of life, Fitz (Phillip Dodd) the bookish intelligentsia flexing his mental muscle (and reading from an edition of Homer) and Burns (Thomas Campbell) a younger, refined thinker, gentle-man usually at the mercy of Quinn , but with enough spunk that we know to expect a rebellion. Each of them want to defeat Odysseus by hitting him where it hurts – his wife, and thereby saving their own lives. None of them are suited to the famously faithful Penelope, however this is nothing to the men for whom the gaining of Penelope’s love has nothing, really, to do with Penelope.

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Some of our men are in the pool when the day dawns, others arrive, implying these men have lives and jobs outside of the task they perform in front of the closed curtains of Penelope’s castle, which amounts, as the play expands into its nether regions, to be nothing. The men bustle and bluster, trying to beat each other in a competition for waiting, hoping and wishing, they will not eventually and inevitably die. Each will move toward Penelope’s window, armed only with the brilliant words of Enda Walsh and the deft direction of Kate Gaul, and they will cry their monologues to the empty skies, where Penelope may or may not appear. This is when the play takes a Beckett turn, the issues of masculinity fading into puerility against the anguished cry of a man who can do nothing but wait for death.  Professing his love for a woman he wants only because there is a competition for her, the men soon dissolve into their own nothingness, the only thing to let them know they are alive is the competition and their aggression against each other.  Burns will claim to fight Quinn for the survival of friendship, honour and love, but in the end, his own utopia hinges on Quinn’s obliteration, not conversion.

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The cast in this Siren Theatre Company production of Penelope is a perfect canvas upon wish Enda Walsh’s words are played with Kate Gaul’s brush. Gauls complete ownership of the subject matter and the words, translates into performances where the actors dive deep into their enormous roles, filling out every space, contracting into every crevice.  Gaul brings out stellar performances from everyone, and includes sublime touches like a dark skinned Penelope (the very beautiful Branden Christine, making it appear as though the men have been fighting since the birth of mankind itself) and Campbell’s withered hand increasing the power and beauty of Burns’ masculinity. These touches counter moments like Quinn’s arrogant sausage eating, and his manipulated depictions of the worlds great love affairs so that the theatrics of masculinity, as well as the philosophy, are brought to the fore. Under Gauls direction, the tropes of masculinity are a performance not a personality trait.

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Gaul knew from the start what she wanted from Penelope, skillfully using the audience as well as the actors to fulfill her perfectly formed vision. The Tap Gallery theatre is small, and the swimming pool set is spliced down the center of the room, forcing the audience to sit around it and therefore in it. Despite the audience being at the edges, Gaul manages to wrap the viewer up inside the set, giving us the immediate sense of claustrophobia and impending doom.  Nothing is at a distance, from the blood stained walls, to Quinn’s flashy red speedoes as he struts his fading manhood. The projected images of the men’s declarations of love are witty video technique, projecting on to the thin cotton barrier to Penelope, enormous talking-man-heads portraying their offers, again, as if they were performances rather than clutches of humanity. In many ways it felt a lot like I was stuck in manhood itself as it was fading and collapsing around me. The scene becomes strangely erotic, even as Gaul retains all the hilarity and absurdity of a bunch of older men wandering around in very tiny swimming costumes.

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All the cast shine in this production. Nicholas Hope is a bullish, potent Quinn, sexy and self-assured despite his age.  His full embodiment of the man’s man we loathe to love commands the stage each time he walks its length.  Only Arky Michael’s Dunne seems unaffected by Quinn, his spluttering rouge a variation on the man’s man theme.  Michael’s Dunn perfectly balances his blunders with his honesty, surprising us into his own virility that counters that of Quinn. Phillip Dodd’s Fitz is less the provocateur, more the analyst.  It is his speech that will call forth Penelope and his mind that will strike fear into the heart of Dunn. Fitz is tall, lanky, surprised by his own body and at the same time, happily mediating it into submission and Dodd turns his intellect to passion before our eyes in a remarkable magic trick.  Thomas Campbell’s Burns eats his own fiery passion like a backward volcano, making one sure all the time we are about to see its yearning lava burst out over us.  Burns can put the fear into Quinn, mostly because he isn’t impressed by the display.  And yet under the watchful gaze of Penelope, each of the men crumble into the nothing going no where they really are.

Kate Gaul’s production of Penelope is a standout this season, and not to be missed. It’s on at the Tap Gallery until October 6. You can grab your tickets here.

The photos in this post are courtesy of Kathy Luu.

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