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Desperate housewife

Margaret Atwood’s all-female play The Penelopiad twists the Odysseus myth

Novelist, poet and playwright Margaret Atwood. (George Whiteside/McClelland & Stewart)
Novelist, poet and playwright Margaret Atwood. (George Whiteside/McClelland & Stewart)

Margaret Atwood makes her professional debut as a dramatist this month in England, when the Royal Shakespeare Company premieres her much-anticipated adaptation of The Penelopiad. But the woman often tagged “the Queen of Canlit” is by no means a neophyte when it comes to the theatre. In fact, before there was Margaret Atwood the novelist and poet, there was Margaret Atwood the playwright and puppeteer.

“I had another whole theatrical career when I was in high school,” Atwood says in that familiar flat, slightly nasal voice, which belies a wit as dry as unbuttered toast. She’s speaking by phone from her summer cottage on Pelee Island in Lake Erie, where she’s keeping in touch with the overseas Penelopiad rehearsals via e-mail. “I had a puppet show,” she explains.

During her years at Toronto’s Leaside High School, Atwood and a pal hired themselves out as puppeteers. “We actually ended up having an agent. And we did shows for children’s Christmas parties — what a nightmare,” she adds with a laugh.

When she wasn’t entertaining roomfuls of fidgety, sugar-stoked kids, the young Atwood also wrote and acted in plays at school and, later, at the University of Toronto. But as an adult and a novelist, she put aside theatrical things, preferring to let others bring her books to the stage — whether it be an opera of The Handmaid’s Tale by Danish composer Poul Ruders, or a play of The Edible Woman by Canadian playwright Dave Carley.

It wasn’t until 2004, after finishing her novel The Penelopiad, a wry modern take on the Odysseus and Penelope myth, that the 65-year-old author felt the urge to write a play again. “It just seemed the natural thing to do with this particular piece,” she says.

She wasn’t thinking of it as a play at the time, but Atwood deliberately structured the novel as an homage to classical Greek drama. Penelope, the faithful wife of the wandering warrior-king Odysseus, recounts the story of her 20-year wait for his return home in a series of witty after-life monologues delivered from Hades. In between, her 12 maids act as a chorus, providing their own servant’s-eye-view of events in a succession of songs and skits that also evoke the irreverent spirit of the Greek satyr play.

Once she finished the novel, Atwood realized it might have theatrical potential. She floated the idea with top British director Phyllida Lloyd, who had directed the opera of The Handmaid’s Tale, and together they collaborated on a staged reading in London to coincide with the book’s U.K. launch.

“What we did in London was a kind of tryout, to see how it would work,” says Atwood, who played Penelope for that reading. “And it did seem to work quite well, so at that point I went ahead with it and did a script.” She offered it first to the National Arts Centre, which snapped it up, but the Royal Shakespeare Company expressed interest, too. As a result, the two have forged an alliance and are co-producing the play, which will have its Canadian premiere in Ottawa in September.

British actor and director Josette Bushell-Mingo. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images) British actor and director Josette Bushell-Mingo. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

The project is a true co-operative effort, with an impressive cast and creative team drawn equally from Canada and the U.K. Since Lloyd was unavailable to direct (she’s off making the movie of the musical Mamma Mia!), Josette Bushell-Mingo, former star of The Lion King and now a rising talent among British directors, has taken the helm. She’s guiding an all-female cast of 13 that features RSC leading lady Penny Downie as Penelope as well as such seasoned Canadian actresses as Philippa Domville and Corinne Koslo. (One of the Canadian cast members, Kate Hennig, is keeping a blog of the production.) Behind the scenes, the Canadian contingent also includes veteran lighting designer Bonnie Beecher and ballet star Veronica Tennant, who is acting as movement director.

“It’s a ‘let it rip’ piece,” says Atwood, by way of explaining the need for such a high-powered ensemble. “Let it rip! It’s not a domestic comedy.”

Definitely not. As reconceived by Atwood, Penelope is much more than the patient paragon of wifely fidelity depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey — rather, think of her as an ancient Greek Desperate Housewife.

“There she is, stuck without her man,” Atwood says. “Her mother-in-law dies, her father-in-law poodles off to the other end of the island, leaving her in charge of the palace. There’s nobody really to help her except the servants and this son of hers [Telemachus] — who was a baby when Odysseus left — who has become the classic teenage son: namely, he takes the family ship without permission and goes off in search of adventure. Then all these suitors turn up, half her age, obviously bent on the throne, and start eating up all the food. And she can’t do anything about it.”

Enter the 12 maids, who in Atwood’s version assist Penelope in fending off that horde of would-be husbands. Unfortunately, when Odysseus finally arrives home and slaughters the suitors, he also orders Telemachus to hang the maids as presumed accomplices.

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, whose story appears in Homer's The Odyssey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, whose story appears in Homer's The Odyssey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Their cruel fate, accorded only a few lines in Homer, has always bothered Atwood, which was one reason why she chose to revisit the tale. “If you examine the evidence against the maids, why they should have been hanged, it all gets pretty flimsy,” she says. “Yes, they had sex with the suitors, but they were raped — it says so in The Odyssey. Yes, they were disrespectful to Odysseus, but they didn’t know it was Odysseus [who returns home in disguise], so why should they be hanged for that? It’s all very iffy.”

Atwood finally lets them plead their case in The Penelopiad, which received glowing critical notices when it was published in 2005, as part of a multi-author series on famous myths. But, while the book was already theatre friendly, actually turning it into a play has proved complex from a technical point of view. In fact, working on it has taken Atwood back to her puppetry days. “This is a little bit like a puppet show, in that you have a stage and props and dialogue, and you have to get the characters on and off stage,” she says.

The collaborative process of creating theatre also reminds her of something from her past. “What it’s really the most like is summer camp,” she says. “Theatre is summer camp for grownups. We always put on shows at summer camp.”

It may be that down-to-earth attitude which allows her to be so cool about opening a new play at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, with one of the world’s most celebrated theatre companies. “It’s not a huge theatre, actually,” she says of the Swan, the RSC’s 432-seat second stage, where the play begins performances July 27. “I don’t know … I think it’s very nice.”

Has the Penelopiad experience whet her appetite for more theatrical writing? “I think Oryx and Crake would make a good opera,” she muses, referring to her 2003 sci-fi novel about genetic engineering run amok. “It would be easier to do it as an opera because it’s so peculiar and opera lends itself to very peculiar things.”

If it were to be an opera, would she write the libretto? “You never know,” she says archly, then breaks into a laugh. “I don’t like to make any sort of comment about the future, because it’s not predictable.”

The Penelopiad runs July 27 to Aug. 18 at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., and Sept. 21 to Oct. 6 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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