SCOTT SIMON, host:
A new play that reworks one of literature's great tales had its world premiere this week in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. "The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood is an adaptation of her book by the same name. The story imagines the lives and afterlives of Odysseus' wife Penelope and her 12 maids who are hanged by Odysseus upon his return home from war.
Margaret Atwood gives depth to Penelope's character, and the maids' faces, names and rage to last an eternity.
Matt Cowan traveled to Stratford and files this report.
(Soundbite of play, "The Penelopiad")
Ms. PENNY DOWNIE (Actress): (As Penelope) Now that I'm dead, I know everything.
MATT COWAN: And so begins the odyssey that is "The Penelopiad." That's odyssey with a lowercase O. For though it is an adventure of epic scale with births, hangings or rape, not to mention a cast of characters familiar from Homer's "The Odyssey," this story departs from the tale told in that epic poem and casts light on characters which are marginal in the familiar version of events.
Speaking from the netherworld of Hades, Penelope is still coming to terms with all that transpired during her eventful lifetime.
(Soundbite of play, "The Penelopiad")
Ms. PENNY DOWNIE (Actress): (As Penelope) Down here, everyone arrives with a sack like the sack used to keep the winds in. But each of these sacks is full of words. Words you've spoken. Words you've heard. Words that have been said about you. Some sacks are very small, others large. My own is of a reasonable size. Though a lot of the words in it concern my eminent husband. What a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his - making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties - getting away.
COWAN: Author Margaret Atwood agreed to write "The Penelopiad" after being asked politely by Jamie Byng, a young publisher at Canongate Books, a few years back. But then she found the task so difficult that she tried to get out of it.
Ms. MARGARET ATWOOD (Author, "The Penelopiad"): In the final instance, I did it out of fright because I found out my English agents thought that I don't seemed to be able to do those. She was quite frosty about that and said that Jamie Byng would be gutted. And I thought, oh, I can't gut - I can't be responsible for gutting a young publisher.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COWAN: The play "The Penelopiad" is a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Canada's National Art Center. And it has been a trans-Atlantic collaboration in every sense. More than half of the actors are Canadian. And while Atwood remained in Ontario for much of the pre-production, the job of staging her story went to a British director by the name of Josette Bushell-Mingo.
Ms. JOSETTE BUSHELL-MINGO (Director, "The Penelopiad"): I haven't had a piece of work chase me like this, ever. Ever.
COWAN: She, too, tried turning it down citing other commitments, but found herself drawn in.
Ms. BUSHELL-MINGO: It's irresistible. It's irresistible the way Margaret writes about it. The idea is very potent. Let's give Margaret - let's give Penelope - sorry - her voice. Let her tell it from her side of the story. I mean, that in itself was a gauntlet down to history, to literature, to the feminists, to the et cetera - on and on and on.
COWAN: Thus, began a production of Greek drama remixed. Bushell-Mingo says her inspiration comes equally from timeless tragedies and films featuring the likes of Keanu Reaves and Russell Crowe.
Ms. BUSHELL-MINGO: The first thing, I think, was to access Margaret's world and sense of mischief, darkness and wit. That was the first thing. I have a huge influence by film so anything from "300," "Matrix," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Gladiator."
COWAN: Bushell-Mingo's cinematic vision is very much in evidence in this stage production. Several scenes feature slow-motion action. The opening scene moves from Penelope framed by a single shaft of overhead light to a haunted world where the wronged maids stand covered in shrouds. Later, when we see how the maids were hanged, there are no ropes, nothing but body language and light to convey the travesty and the play is all the more powerful for it.
Ms. BUSHELL-MINGO: Once the text is there, you then have to turn it over to other people and not interfere too much in what they're doing because the vision then becomes the vision of the director and the creative team.
COWAN: Perhaps the director's boldest choice was the decision to stage "The Penelopiad" with an all-female cast. So the stubby-legged, barrel-chested Odysseus is played by a slender actress with perfectly proportioned athletic legs. Penelope's father, who cast her into the sea, dismayed that he has a daughter, is played by a woman. Not to mention the suitor who commits the brutal rape.
Ms. BUSHELL-MINGO: It must be a curious fact we left for some reasons as all the kind of, it's all women. Oh, my goodness. Trouble is brewing. You know? It's not like that at all. It made absolute sense. I wanted to trust the audience's imagination and sense of humor as well as the pathos that they do capture. It makes it doubly potent, doubly erotic, doubly sensuous.
Ms. ATWOOD: It may not be played that way because it's such a malleable idea. You could do it with all man if you wanted to or you could do it with a mix.
COWAN: Those kind of fundamental production decisions were complicated by the fact that the author and director were on two separate continents.
Ms. BUSHELL-MINGO: Example, the death and the lives of the maids. You don't need to have a courtroom scene. You don't need to have a mythical scene about the numbers of them, et cetera, et cetera. And those weren't given up easily by Margaret. There had to be a backward and forward series of discussions and e-mail, and one or two Web cam interviews as well.
COWAN: Atwood did visit Stratford in the early stages of the production but fought the urge to oversee the process, a decision that was not made simply for creative reasons.
Ms. ATWOOD: Getting on a plane is a pretty polluting thing to do. So if you can cut down on the number of flights you take by using this kind of technology instead, it's going to be very pollution-saving.
COWAN: "The Penelopiad's" author will finally see the play en route to the (unintelligible) Book Fair next week. But she won't see Bushell-Mingo. She's heading to Sweden, where she's staging a production of Homer's "Odyssey."
For National Public Radio, I'm Matt Cowan in London.
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