Penelope Retold – Caroline Horton

This intimate and powerful piece of storytelling begins by asking us to consider our own identity. Write three words to describe yourself. The set being dominated by one large bed only adds to this, there is no more personal a space than the bedroom, and when our names and descriptions are added to the set, we are all left feeling a little wary of how they might be used.

Despite this being a retelling of the story of Odysseus and Penelope, epic in its scale, this piece is small. It is the story from the inside, the story of the woman, married at 15, left behind for 19 years whilst her husband goes to war. Drifting somewhere between complete re-contextualisation in a contemporary setting, and Greek myth like portrayal and language, we find Penelope, a military wife, trying to reform her own identity, in the space where her husband once was.

Penelope Retold 3

As with many women who are defined by the men who dominate their lives, Penelope’s world is all about Odysseus, until he leaves her. Gradually, without him there, she unfolds. A mixture of loneliness and a sense of injustice combine to fuel a growing rage.

The whole piece is centred around her bed, which she never leaves. Wrapped up amongst the muted natural toned, multi-layered bed clothes, Penelope is like a pearl in the centre of an oyster. Created by a tiny grain of sand, a little irritation at first, but building, year after year after year, niggling away at her. She is a prize, this pearl of a woman, but she is passive, demanded upon, expected of. She becomes something to be coveted, by men and other military wives alike, but really, she feels she is nothing more than layer after layer of self-protection.

It is her bed, her body, her private world, that Odysseus demands, and it is her bed that he abandons. By leaving his young wife, he denies her the comfort of a partner. even though, after 19 years, when they are little more than strangers, it is her in bed that he demands upon his return.

The narrative is brilliantly and at times, hilariously constructed through her own self-reflection. We see her through a variety of lenses, the military wives online interview, her lonely hearts ad, an awkward first date, the shipping forecast. They are all at a distance, she is, for the most part, completely alone, and the questions are entirely about her as his wife.

Through this, as the obedient wife of a man of importance, she still maintains her public face, putting her man first. She is on a pedestal for others, someone to be admired, to be emulated. She is the wife of the great Odysseus. It is this public face and the seemingly innocuous questions from her peers, far away in their own home prisons, that really strip away her layers of protection, and show her as the vulnerable child she was when she was married. And her she continues to be, trapped in this limbo, waiting for her reason for existence to return from his epic voyage.

Penelope Big_1It is a powerful parallel, the life of the modern military wife, mixing anxiety and concern, left alone to manage the home and the children, but unable to complain for fear of not being supportive of the husband’s dangerous and self-sacrificing job.

As Penelope discovers, if a person defines themselves only by the existence and rank of their spouse, then what is left when that spouse is taken away?

It is not just the story of military spouses, it is the story of any person, trapped in an empty space, without enough of themselves to walk away. Penelope decides to leave, every day, but she never quite manages it.

Hers is a quiet story, a story from the sidelines, and it is powerfully and poignantly retold with excellent direction from Lucy J Skilbeck. Each device that has been chosen is expertly placed, and used only to deliver the essence of the story.

Caroline Horton’s performance is enthralling, her demeanour, her gaze, full of pity one moment, fury the next, and rounded off with genuine humour and endearing charm.

This performance is touring throughout March and April.