revew: Caroline Horton – Penelope RETOLD
dir. Lucy J. Skilbeck/
This is the theatre, in Derby, the studio, the audience gathers.
Caroline Horton’s Penelope hides under sheets in her bed,
Waiting for us to be seated, waiting to wake and to give her side,
Waiting for, chiefly, Odysseus, who left, twice, and hasn’t returned yet.
First of all, Penelope RETOLD was excellent. Everything I reckon an approach/attack/critique of a canonical text should be. It was irreverent, relevant, respectful, entertaining and all sorts of other positive adjectives Caroline Horton’s performance was the whole mad mix of epic, human, misery, elation. In short, it was BIG. Which is even more impressive when you realise this is a one woman show, from a performer who never leaves her bed.
Waves crash constantly under her window, the stories she tells us.
Absence is key here. Odysseus, knowledge, and agency denied her.
Penelope RETOLD embraces the hugeness of the Greek epic, as archetypal cultural literary object, but more importantly it takes control of it. The character of Penelope is huge in her vacancy – massive in her position within the Odyssey and Iliad, but loaded with potential in her near absence from the actual events of the epics. Horton takes this absence and explodes it. In the wreckage of the poetry, we meet Penelope, alone, waiting, waiting.
Faithful Penelope, captive Penelope, pining Penelope,
Angry Penelope, dancing Penelope, pissed-off Penelope.
One brilliant thing about this piece is how faithful to the original text it remains. Obviously it can afford that through how absent and undeveloped Penelope is as a character, but it feels almost cheeky that it can get away with so much within the bounds of who Penelope is. This piece acts like a footnote, in the Terry Pratchett school of footnotes that might contain an entire other world. And in this other world, Penelope is as manifold as in the original she is monotype. We see everything (everyone) she is, has been, and wants to be.
How can she challenge the reasons she’s lying there, housebound and husbandless?
How many times must she try to stand up before finding her feet again?
Penelope is Military Spouse, Girl of Fifteen, Married, Party Girl, Mother, Furious, Internet Dating, Terrified, Lonely, Hounded. And every aspect jumps at us in this rapid collage of a piece. The harrowing, repeated blank horror of Odysseus coming home, slaughtering hundreds of suitors, the smell of disinfectant clearing away the blood. The alive, so alive, girl dancing at her wedding, flickering between nervous excitement and grotesque unease. There was so. much. energy in this piece. And it never dropped. Even when everything was still.
Nevermind fucking Odysseus, Penelope’s here. So listen up now
This is the end now, little Penelope won’t be tied down.
What really strikes me is how easy it all was. It just all made sense, as this tight piece of complete theatre. In the after show talk, Sarah Brigham (whose idea I gather it was to do this in the first place) praised the poetry of Horton’s writing – because, let’s not forget, Horton wrote this as well as performed it. And I agree. It takes a lot of work to create a piece of theatre that seems this effortless, script being part of that. Everything being part of it, and it was all there.This was such a big performance. And Caroline Horton was fantastic throughout, carried it with total ease.
A woman stays in bed and picks apart everything that forced her to feel like she could never leave. And then she leaves. A vital piece of discursive theatre, challenging the ancient, bursting with a sense of modern womanhood.
Penelope RETOLD is playing at Derby Theatre for one more night before embarking on a national tour. For tour details see here. Then book to see it. Then go see it.