Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

on enda walsh’s ‘penelope’, big brother and women of letters

A dramaturgical analysis

(The first of many.)

Penelope is a race to an impossible finish line.  It is Lord of the Flies meets Big Brother meets The Bachelorette meets humanity at its worst with a thin sprinkling of Greek mythology to provide a context and justify the ugliness.  The setting, an empty, detritus-filled swimming pool, becomes a petri dish in which grows rage and impotent lust.  Friendship (between the character Burns and the now deceased Murray) grows too but it is smothered by the more virulent, baser strains: the play opens to Burns scrubbing his friend’s blood from the walls of the pool.  Murray has committed suicide.  It is the latest death in a year-long test of endurance, which has seen the pool’s population fall from a hundred to four: bullying Quinn, servile Burns and the forgettable Dunn and Fitz.

It is a perfect formula for a study in masculinity under pressure.   Walsh has focused on a subplot of The Odyssey, easily compressed to a mere sentence or two.  It is the story of stasis.  Odysseus’ own rambling trails are never mentioned.  He is a prop.  An unattainable image of masculinity, too vague to be fallible just as his wife is a sketch of woman, all the more enticing for her non-descript silhouette.  The futility of the flesh and blood (and more flesh) men on stage is blazingly clear: they will always be compared to The Impossible and that Impossibility is coming to reclaim his Impossible wife and rip her suitors limb from pathetic limb.

Yet, for all the flesh and blood and sweat and bathers on display, the four were more a series of stereotypes than reality.  Perhaps this was Walsh’s intention: to suggest that, by dehumanising Penelope and treating the men as ‘contestants’ rather than individuals, humanity will be… well… stripped away.   Caricatured.    Oh and they will shout a lot.

Danger could have been zapping off the pool’s tiles.  But it was not.  I longed for that ‘anyone could kill anyone at anytime’ tension but the outcome of Penelope felt obvious: that bully-Quinn would be murdered by his companions.  He was too alpha to outlive the play.  Allowing an audience to be ahead of the action is by no means a crippling thing.  The beauty of Romeo and Juliet is that we all know how it will end (and there is a prophetic prologue to solidify this certainty) but good productions will still allow us magical moments when we see hope for the doomed pair.  Likewise, to anyone with the vaguest knowledge of The Odyssey, Penelope’s name will be synonymous with chastity but the play seemed unable to either maintain the delicious tension promised by the bloody set up or offer precious moments of optimism for the suitors.

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Everybody speaks too much and too loudly, their words full of bravado and insincerity with only occasional moments of truth.  It is these longed for lulls that draw Penelope from her elevated hideout. The words that seemed to touch Penelope most keenly were when a suitor admitted that what he was feeling was not love of a real woman but potential:  ‘Can you see in me a possibility?  A possibility to keep love faceless… and just love the love itself?’ (Fitz, Penelope, page 36) That this vicious, vacuous world contains hope is what makes her open her door.

What lessened the impact of these moments was the sheer volume of words.  Walsh seems adamant that truth and wisdom can only be attained by excessive verbal interrogation of cluttered thoughts.  I longed for someone to make a personal discovery in a word or two.  A glance.  A breath.  These moments also became the repetitive due to their framing by this production. Can beauty not be found in harsh light? In gently spoken dialogue between two characters?   In a moment between moments? In a look.  A sigh.  An action.  Apparently not.  This is a world of absolutes.  The beautiful moments are beautiful and dense and every other moment is aggressive, loud and sweaty.

The analogies between Penelope and reality television are very clear.  Like Big Brother, the men are housemates who have not chosen each other but are united in pursuit of a single prize.   Privacy is a non-existent, the outside world is impossibly distant and the camera is ever-present.   In February I attended People of Letters[1] in Adelaide.   The surprise pairing was Joshua Moore and Michael Beveridge, who had been participants in the most recent Australian season of Big Brother.   Moore’s brother died suddenly whilst he was in the house and he left the show.  The letters were written in the aftermath, with Beveridge still in the competition.  Their experiences were closely echoed by Penelope: the complete disconnect from outside reality  (‘Outside of here there must be a world… stories must clash about and finish abruptly or start afresh and live for moments’ Penelope, Page 49) and the incredulity they felt at having found friendship in such a terrible, artificial environment, despite the prize looming over them: Beveridge, writing from in the house bitched about the remaining housemates and how, as the competition drew to a close, they walked around vapidly declaring that the friendships they had made within the competition were more valuable than the prize money.  “No way I’d rather have you than a cheeky quarter mill, bro.”

Of course, having two hugely different events examine very similar topics made me consider the form and language in which Penelope was presented.  Many writers struggle to adapt ancient texts for contemporary audiences because of the sheer epic scale of the stories and stakes involved. They find themselves trapped halfway between modern language and the archaic.  I myself encountered this very issue when adapting a Biblical story so I am sympathetic to Walsh’s dilemma: his characters straddle a vast gulf between Homer and the age of reality television and speedos.  And yet, I look back on Beveridge and Moore, whom I (because I’m a pretentious) never expected to move me with their ‘dudes’ and their ‘eat a zinger burger for mes!’  But they did.  I was moved.  Because they spoke with honesty in authentic voices.  Because they struggled to express their shared grief and their delight in finding each other.   Perhaps it is an unfair comparison but, in not anchoring his characters’ language in either reality, Walsh isolates his audiences and sympathy is difficult, if not impossible to illicit.

So what to make of this messy, macho play?  It is a fascinating premise, which promises a tightly coiled, dangerous production.  But is it an examination of modern masculinity and the dangers of dehumanizing both genders?  Perhaps.  But I think not.  There is potential but I don’t believe Penelope ever fulfills it.


[1] Feb 25th, 2013.   The Spiegeltent, Adelaide Fringe.

People of Letters, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire seeks to reinstitute the aging art of letter writing by having invited guests read correspondences.  In Women of Letters, the panel is all female and has been given a specific topic to write on but People of Letters, invites both genders participate.  At these events a letter is written to a specific friend or family member and the recipient then responds with their own letter.

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