"You'll either love it or hate it" or variations on that phrase is the main thing people have been saying about Enda Walsh's Penelope, a hit in Ireland, Edinburgh and New York so far, whose ongoing tour now reaches Hampstead. So I guess you could just call it me being awkward that I did neither; nor did my theatre companion, although both of us found plenty to enjoy in the unusual show. In Homer's Odyssey, while Odysseus is away from home over a hundred suitors try to win his wife Penelope's hand in marriage while she keeps putting off making a choice for 20 years, until at last her husband returns and kills the pretenders. Walsh's take on the story is to put the focus on these suitors, who at the end of the two decades are now podgy men in budgie-smuggling speedos, exiled to a drained swimming pool outside the palace. The competition for Penelope's hand has been violent and now only four remain - a bloody smear on the side of the pool shows where a fifth was only recently taken out of the running. These absurd men are Burns (Aaron Monaghan,) in his thirties, Quinn (Karl Shiels,) in his forties, Dunne (Denis Conway,) in his fifties and Fitz (Niall Buggy - fortunately I immediately recognised him as the alcoholic TV presenter Henry Sellers from Father Ted, or it would have been bugging me all night,) in his sixties.
The men bicker, grumble and fight, and every so often one of them is called to make yet another attempt at wooing the completely silent title character (Olga Wehrly.) Many people have compared Walsh's play to Beckett, which in my case is a worry, but although I can see the resemblance Mikel Murphy's production for the most part holds the interest with some impressive performances, especially from Buggy and Monaghan. There's a poetic quality to the writing so it's apt that the programme is the playtext as this could be one of those plays worth dipping into at a later date. Unfortunately, and especially as the play goes on, there's rather a lot of lengthy speeches (each man gets at least one) and both Andy and I admitted these didn't hold our attention; and really the strength of the show is in the interaction between the characters so when that goes for a while a lot of the play's appeal does too. But Walsh maintains a few surprises up his sleeve and I defy anyone who doesn't know in advance to predict what form the self-styled Alpha Male Quinn's wooing of Penelope will take. An enigmaitc show with a lot of dark humour, Penelope is worth seeing if only so you'll have an opinion of it - I can see how some people might take a dislike to it and see it as pretentious, and can also see why people might be impressed by its strengths but I must admit I'm surprised by just how strong the reaction either way seems to have been.
Penelope by Enda Walsh is booking until the 5th of March at Hampstead Theatre, followed by a run at the Studio Theatre, Washington DC.