Penelope

Enda Walsh
Druid Theatre Company
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

Penelope publicity photo

Is it about the competitive macho spirit, about facing death, about love, or about the lengths that men are prepared to go to? Irish playwright Enda Walsh dabbles in all these things, but in the end it's difficult to define what the play is actually about.

The play is based on Penelope in The Odyssey, the woman who waits twenty years for her husband to return from the war in Troy whilst a horde of Suitors vie for her hand in marriage. In this production, only four remain and are waiting in the drained out swimming pool under Penelope's villa. The bathrobe- and Speedo-bedecked foursome share a dream in which Penelope's husband returns to slaughter them, and, taking this as a prophecy, they strive towards one last effort to win her hand.

Enda Walsh's script provides the words for the men who have nothing much else. They compete, banter, argue and spout their half-drunk philosophies, and it's these relationships that make the play interesting. Where the words begin to falter is in the monologues.

At first, they are no bad thing: Dunne's (Denis Conway) over-theatrical and tangental monologue is misguided and funny as he attempts to woo Penelope with talk of a mighty tower in his underpants. Soon after, however, Fitz (Niall Buggy) takes his turn and his long monologue is hypnotic to the point of drowsiness. Although performed with a quiet, hopeless dignity, the endless talk of 'nothingness' and not much else makes the speech feel empty.

To relieve us of the monologues, Quinn's turn at wooing Penelope comes in form of a quick change sequence in which he plays historical lovers, quickly switching from Romeo to Juliet, from Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara. Although it's brilliantly performed by Karl Shiels and is very funny, it's a bizarre moment, out of place in a play that rotates around the language.

Despite the lengthy monologues, the play is often engaging with its fast paced bitter banter. The acting is superb throughout, and the energetic direction from Mikel Murfi almost manages to carry to the long moments of stillness in the script. Sabine Dargent's design makes brilliant use of the wonderfully versatile Hampstead stage, mixing the modern CCTV, stereo and barbecue with the aura of a Greek villa.

But despite the many good things behind this production, Penelope never really seems to get going. The problem is that, beneath the often beautiful language, Walsh doesn't seem to be saying very much. Although he dabbles in various subjects, he never throws us that meaty question or statement that the play needs.

Reviewer: Emma Berge