Drama

Twelve Angry Maids

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad brings forgotten corners of myth to light on stage

From the October 2007 magazine
Comments
Photography by Jonathan Worth

The Gods are showing no mercy on England. On a recent July day in Stratford-upon-Avon, the heavens let loose downpours that left pensioners clinging to their umbrellas and sent buckets of chrysanthemums rolling through the market. A few streets away, in the relative calm of a converted car dealership, a collection of thirteen Canadian, Irish, Australian, and English actors are sealed in one of the rehearsal rooms of the Royal Shakespeare Company (rsc). The all-female cast is attempting to bring to the stage an adaptation of the Greek myth of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, as retold by Margaret Atwood in her 2005 novel, The Penelopiad. Behind the rehearsal room door, the women wail, stamp their feet, and make other thunderous noises to suit the day. The rehearsal schedule reads: 11:30—The Slaughter. 12:30—Retribution.

While Odysseus spent ten years fighting in the Trojan war and another decade wandering home via the Aegean, Penelope waited on stony Ithaca fending off a host of gluttonous suitors and keeping tabs on her increasingly petulant son, Telemachus. She became emblematic of fidelity, telling suitors she would marry only after weaving a shroud, which she carefully unravelled each night. After returning in disguise, Odysseus slaughtered the suitors and, as an afterthought, hanged twelve of Penelope’s maids in the Greek equivalent of an honour killing. Their crime? Sleeping with the suitors, though being raped by them would be a more apt description.

Atwood’s novel was released as part of The Myths, a series commissioned by Canongate Books retelling classical myths in a “contemporary and memorable way.” The book is not so much an adaptation as a resuscitation of Penelope and her twelve hanged maids, a reminder that for every hero bounding through a narrative there are other
patient characters who must wait for their time to speak. Greek myths, Atwood reminds the reader, would be told “one way in one place and quite differently in another.” In the case of The Penelopiad, her fascination with unexplored voices is inspired by a single image from Homer’s version of The Odyssey: the maids’ dangling feet, still twitching as they were hanged. “I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids,” she writes in her introduction. “In The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”

The book is inherently theatrical. The maids comment on Penelope and their own fate in a series of sketches, laments, and songs dotted through the text. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed The Handmaid’s Tale opera in 2000, was keen to test out the theatrical potential of The Penelopiad and cast Atwood in the lead at a staged reading in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, in London in 2005. The reception was positive—the Independent applauded Atwood’s “Ottawan monotone”—so the author finished a script that drew immediate interest from the National Art Centre’s Peter Hinton. The rsc saw it as a natural continuation of their Complete Works series and agreed to a co-production. After Stratford and Newcastle, it will have its Canadian premiere in Ottawa on September 17.

Lloyd was busy with her own adaptation issues, namely bringing the musical Mamma Mia! to the screen, so the job was won by Josette Bushell-Mingo, an actor, director, and organizer of push, a group that promotes black theatre in the UK. Bushell-Mingo had long relished the darker elements of the Greeks. Through the window of the rehearsal room on this miserable July day, she gesticulates to the group of thirteen actors. Her body language hints at fear and large emotion. There is only one possible end to this particular episode of Greek tragedy: lunch.

A rehearsal room at lunch is a place of lingering residual energy. With the actors gone, the production people bat around ideas between mouthfuls of tuna sandwiches. Veronica Tennant, the movement director and former principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada, stands by a wall of photocopies of classic Greek poses. Warren Wills, musical director, taps away silently on his keyboard, and Bushell-Mingo paces her set—which at that point consists mostly of scaffolding and loose chairs. She is dressed in black track suit bottoms and a grey hoodie, her short hair interrupted by a grey streak. Bushell-Mingo’s most memorable acting role to date was as Rafiki, the wily mandrill in the London production of The Lion King, and when she starts her impersonation her eyes stretch to a childlike width. Her speech tumbles out with excitement—the diametric opposite of Atwood’s dry precision.

Bushell-Mingo makes it clear that she’s an actor who directs and not someone who approaches projects with a grand, finished vision. She plucks ideas from a wide range of sources. Fight styles from The Matrix and gags from bawdy British comedies of the 1960s mesh with epic acting and a sound design that will imitate arrows whizzing across the room. She stretches ideas out, twangs their elasticity before accepting or rejecting. (“She’ll listen to anything,” one of the actors says. “You’ll talk to her about an idea. She’ll say something that seems unconnected but she’s already three moves ahead.”) At this stage in the process, the ideas are still as shapeless as the rehearsal skirts. The concepts might be ripped up like so much rehearsal tape on the wooden floor of the room, lined out to replicate the dimensions of the Swan theatre. Bushell-Mingo is adamant that the theatre itself be present in the setting, not only because it will be the last production at the Swan before it closes down for renovations, but also because there will be no recreation of Greece here—no pillars, no faux marble columns. The void is important. Atwood has Penelope narrate her story from the afterworld in a state of “bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness.”

“It’s a unique myth,” Bushell-Mingo says, still walking about the room. “We have Odysseus but we also have Penelope’s relationship with Helen of Troy. That’s like Muhammad Ali meets Einstein. We’re not just deconstructing and reconstructing Penelope but all those who came under her gaze.”

rsc associate artist Penny Downie plays Penelope, so the women performing as the twelve maids are responsible for all the remaining roles, from Helen to Odysseus’s nurse Eurycleia to the throng of oafish suitors. The cast will race through costume changes but also rely on smaller attempts at characterization. Earlier in the week, a transgendered woman named Joey came in to the rehearsals to demonstrate how even subtle gestures can be perceived as masculine or feminine. This subtlety gives way, however, in Bushell-Mingo’s garish handling of the scenes where the suitors rape the maids. As the violence unfolds, she’s decided to counter it with an upstage Busby Berkeley sequence. “A girl is getting black-eyed, traumatized, brutalized, and behind we’ve got a fifties microphone and feathers.”

She’s obviously not feeling too shackled to the text. “This is not reverential at all. It’s the spirit I’m after. I was nervous I was somehow not going to be able to capture Penelope. You don’t have to like her but you do have to get her right. And I needed to make sure we saw the humaneness of the twelve girls. I don’t want them to come across as numbers. We need to see what happens when twelve maids hang.”

The hanging scene that grabbed Atwood’s attention is one of the most crucial, and at this stage Bushell-Mingo is still grappling with how to express it. Part of adapting The Penelopiad is capturing the dry tone of the book but also the loose, imaginative nature of its cabaret style. The recent rsc production of King Lear featured the Fool hanged onstage, strung up above the ground and wriggling until his death. Bushell-Mingo will not follow that particular route. “If you have twelve nooses in the theatre,” she says, “you don’t have to hang anyone. You leave them to swing. The maids were hanged from a ship with one rope. After they cleared up the bodies of the suitors, Odysseus was knackered and said to his son, take them out and murder them. They were getting hoisted up—can you see it?—and slowly dying. Penelope could have said something. She didn’t. We need to capture that.”

Bushell-Mingo says she’s not an intellectual director, but that belies the rigour of this adaptation process. There’s a deep, well-worn groove that each piece of new or changed text has travelled down, from its origin in rehearsal to changes in the script back to the assistant director Rae Mcken, who couches it in context and sends it to Atwood. Sometimes the change is immediately accepted. Sometimes it provokes debate. Sometimes it gets a flat-out no. Bushell-Mingo sends Atwood an email every second day. “What I like is that in the retelling of the retelling, we have retold,” she says. “We question Margaret.” There’s a secondary plan if the tempo of communication needs to be increased: “Margaret says, ‘You can call me.’ And I’ll be bloody taking her up on her offer. We’re going to get a webcam in here so I’ll be like, ‘Hey girl…’”

It’s morning on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. Margaret Atwood has already finished the day’s quota of five pages for her next novel and is ready for a tea break. “They’re not sucking up. They may be saying behind my back ‘Oh, if only we didn’t have to suck up so much,’ but I haven’t noticed them doing it.” At this point the cast has been through six or seven versions of her script, and Atwood’s own adaptation concerns centre on how to add and subtract the varied elements of the story. “The book is discursive. It’s like going through someone’s scrapbook. Things are pasted. Here you’ll find Penelope talking, and suddenly the maids come in and do a little eighteenth-century playlet. Or they do the trial of Odysseus.” Even though they sound well-suited to the stage, these two particular elements simply didn’t work. “The momentum at that point was such that it needed to drive on and get to the next part of the plot.” Atwood’s production notes are full of shuffled scenes and suggestions: “Perhaps Penelope and the Maids could make their first appearances as owls? ” she asks at one point. A novel takes as long as it needs to, and Atwood was acutely aware of the constraints of theatre, even when they tended toward the biological. “What is the maximum amount of time you can do this and hold people’s attention without them also thinking, ‘I really have to go to the bathroom?’ It can be very distracting.”

She’s heard The Handmaid’s Tale sung, seen it on film, as well as The Edible Woman onstage. She’s aware of the pitfalls of what will simply not work in theatre. “There’s a moment in The Ring when the hero comes upon Brunhilde lying in her ring of fire and says in German, ‘Das ist kein Mann,’ which means ‘It’s not a man’ but also ‘It’s not a human being,’ whereas if you translate it into English—‘This isn’t a man’—everybody laughs, especially since Brunhilde usually has an enormous chest. Some things just don’t work. They’re funny when they shouldn’t be funny and not funny when they should. You find that in rehearsal. You try it, and the effect is not what you had anticipated.”

Atwood has, in her words, made a “skeletal thing.” In Stratford they are putting the flesh on. “They will have created it. I think it’s moving in a different direction, not necessarily laterally. They’re making a new thing, whatever that thing may be.” But is it a successful example of literary resuscitation? Will the maids now be saved from the dark, forgotten corner of the myth? “We’ll wait and see,” says Atwood. “Never say never.”

Kate Hennig, who plays Eurycleia, among others, has been blogging about the rehearsal process. She once appeared in a children’s play by Atwood and has been reading her novels as they’ve been released. “Myths are repeated at different times in our civilization,” she says. “And this story is sohow up right now. It’s important that it be told from the feminine perspective.”

Some of the younger members of the cast don’t have as much familiarity with Atwood’s work, but they seem just as energized by reviving sidelined characters. In an attempt to catch up, Jenny Young is on her fourth Atwood novel since getting the part. “We’re post-feminists in the Western world,” she says. “In many ways we’re supposedly equal to men in society on paper. Now we have to look back at all the literature for a gazillion years and think, okay, there are so many filters we have to take off from so many stories. For instance, we all know Homer’s Odyssey. What about these characters we forgot about? ”

“I had never thought of these characters,” adds Lisa Karen Cox. “You get cast and go and sit down and read The Odyssey and they’re next-to-never mentioned. If they are it’s always in passing, like how you would talk about cattle. So to know you’re going to get to give it a feminine perspective for the first time—for the first time in a couple of thousand years—is very exciting.”

Weeks later, and the punitive weather in Stratford had only worsened. The homes of two of the British actors were flooded. The water lapped up to within an inch of the door jamb at the house of Pamela Matthews, one of the Canadians. One of the English actors has been replaced, and the Canadians are learning about the hard slog of the technical runs in England. Of course, the crucial hanging scene has gone through a number of changes in an attempt to get that lingering image right.

“Josette went through so many things,” says Philippa Domville, who plays one of the maids. “We had ropes in at one point. She said, ‘We need to use your bodies. We need to do it through a physical movement.’ Now it’s just us. It’s simpler and comes out of the bodies of actors so it’s not contrived. There’s no choking, just movement.” So how do the maids die? “We go up on our toes. That’s all.”

Margaret Atwood is confident in the work and excited about the progress, but opening nights are never easy experiences for her. “I was there the opening night of The Handmaid’s Tale opera in Denmark,” she says. “I had no idea what it was going to be like. There were a lot of iffy things. The guy who was singing the Commander had cancer and he actually died four months after that, but he was determined to go on. It was very fraught, very fraught. But it was, in fact, a triumphant opening night.” What does it mean to be out in the audience? Is there a certain amount of acting that she too must do? “Just keep smiling,” Atwood says. “Keep those old teeth gritted.”

During tech week, Kate Hennig’s blog features titles like “First day of tech. Yikes,” “Slow and Steady Wins The Race,” and “Long Day and Birthday,” but the final elements are knitting together. Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher’s artistry has been sweeping the stage. The maid’s voices are becoming clearer.

“I’m not striving for perfection,” says Bushell-Mingo. “We just need to uncover these maids. These maids you wouldn’t have even farted on before. Listen: you won’t forget them now.”

Subscribe to The Walrus Donate to The Walrus Foundation