By Lucy Knight
When you imagine a play based upon a great classic such as Homer’s Odyssey, a wacky tragicomedy set in a drained swimming pool is not, perhaps, what first springs to mind. But that is exactly what Enda Walsh’s Penelope is, and Lion Theatre Company (LTC) have boldly decided to bring this modern/classic mash-up to Durham’s City Theatre. The play premiered to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010, and co-Director Talor Hanson, who first came across the piece during her A-Levels, describes the play as a “vibrant” interpretation of the classical character Penelope, whilst Luke Titmuss, her fellow co-Director, claims that it is “a full transformation of classical literature.”
Four actors make up the cast, which consists of Penelope’s remaining suitors: Fitz (Zac Tiplady), a barmy, drug-addled literature-lover; Quinn (Freddie Parsons) an aggressive manipulator; Burns (Angharad Phillips) the youngest suitor and the butt of most of the others’ jokes, and Dunne (Alex Colville) described by Colville as ‘all the ‘F’s – a fat, flamboyant, fifty-year-old’. The small cast have clearly worked incredibly hard to create the specific character dynamics required of them, all of them, in some way, representing and ridiculing concepts of ‘masculinity’. Interestingly, the character of Penelope herself is merely referenced, and does not feature; Hanson comments that the play “makes people question why women haven’t been given a voice in the past.” The way that the play has been written also encourages audiences to think about how women are presented and objectified within both literature and society: as Colville comments, the four male characters have “projected a lot of what they believe the ‘ideal woman’ to be onto [Penelope].”
The cast and creatives of the production admit that this piece has been something of a challenge to create, because the whole play is written as one scene, and, as Titmuss puts it, “there isn’t a downbeat for any of the characters.” From watching a short extract of the performance, it is clear that the actors have worked incredibly hard on detailed characterisation, and lots of thought from the directors has gone into how to keep the audience interested – for this is a play that is more driven by its writing than by its plot. The chemistry between the actors is also palpable – the four actors bounce the witty script off one another, and have created an atmosphere that is both intriguing and hilarious.
The play will be performed in the City Theatre, an unusual choice for a DST production, but one that is, according to Hanson, well-suited to this play, as the space is ‘very enclosed’ so allows the audience to feel “close to the action”, as if they were in the swimming pool along with the characters. The setting will be indicated by flats painted to look like swimming pool tiles, but the directors were keen for set and lighting to be as minimal as possible, for they feel that the production should be driven by the actors, just as the only thing that is really driving the characters to continue to fight for Penelope, is themselves.
We are fortunate as students of Durham University in that Durham Student Theatre often provides us with opportunities to see and experience things we’ve never seen before, and perhaps never knew we even needed or wanted to see. Being able to see a play that extracts the latent content from classical literature and places it in an empty swimming pool is surely one of those opportunities, and it would be foolish to turn down such a potentially enriching offer.
The play promises to be, at best, an engaging and hilarious examination of masculinity and classical literature, or, at worst, utterly bizarre – which, even if it were the latter, would not be entirely disappointing. If that is not enough to entice you to the City Theatre this week, then Parsons suggests that you may like to come “to see me in my Speedos”, or to see, as Colville puts it, “Angie getting whacked by a table-tennis bat.” Those seem as good reasons as any to buy a ticket and see what LTC’s second production of the term has to offer.
‘Penelope’ will be showing at The City Theatre from Friday, 2nd of December until Saturday, 3rd of December at 18:00. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Lion Theatre Company