HOMER’S ODYSSEY has proved an unending source of inspiration to countless artists down the ages since it was first composed, sometime around the 8th century BC.
Notable adaptors have included such diverse figures as James Joyce, Derek Walcott, Margaret Atwood, and US film-makers the Coen brothers. Now playwright Enda Walsh joins that august band with his new play, Penelope, which Druid are presenting as part of the Galway Arts Festival.
The author of strikingly original plays such as Disco Pigs, Bedbound, and The Walworth Farce, Walsh delivers an equally distinctive take on Homer’s classic. His is surely the only version of the story in which sausages, Speedos, and swimming pools form part of the mise-en-scene.
Though his play’s title is given to Odysseus’s faithful and patient wife Penelope, its focus is actually on the gaggle of suitors who occupy her household in Odysseus’s absence, hoping to win her hand in marriage.
The action unfolds in a drained swimming pool where four fraught suitors in swimming gear bicker over a BBQ as they fearfully await Odysseus’ return.
Sitting in Druid’s offices as he prepares for rehearsals to commence, Walsh reveals how he came to the story.
“There’s a dramaturge in Germany called Tilman Raabke who I’ve worked with for years, he’s now working in the Ruhr valley with Theatre Oberhausen,” he says. “They asked six European playwrights to look at The Odyssey and he asked me what I thought and straightaway I said ‘I absolutely love the suitors!’
“Those characters just seemed really interesting to me. You have Odysseus on his travels and adventures and here are these men just wrecking Penelope’s house, eating her food and drinking all her drink. I just thought there’s a great situation there.
“It seemed like a really good starting point and the image of a swimming pool came to me very quickly and the image of men staring at their deaths in Speedos is really quite sad! There is a lot of humour and a lot of life in it.”
Walsh expands on his relationship with dramaturge Raabke.
“I first met him about 13 years ago when Disco was invited to the Bonn Biennale,” he says. “He’s incredibly tall, 6’ 8”. I immediately liked him, he’s a very fun guy. The way the relationship works is that I’ll be working on a play, or about to work on one, and I’ll go over to him and talk it out with him.
“He’s a terribly hard drinker! We have these sessions where we meet, I’ll be sitting with him in a pub and he’ll have his beer at 11 o’clock in the morning, he’ll drink all day but doesn’t get drunk. He’ll go ‘So...talk!’ and I’ll talk out the play, not in any great detail, more about the atmosphere and rhythms of the piece, and referencing movies and other plays, and the characters’ histories.
“With Penelope, I talked a lot about those men, businessmen who feel as if they need to have an opinion on absolutely everything, and discuss everything and discuss the oxygen out of every possible situation.
“We meet these men at first where it’s just, they’re like little locusts, everything behind them is just debris. We look at what that does to their souls and their hearts and what they have become.”
Though the play is named after Penelope, she herself barely features in the action.
“Yes, that really surprised me.” Walsh admits. “I kept thinking ‘This woman is going to get involved’ but the more it went on the more I thought, ‘I can’t actually have her talk, it would just completely lessen her by having her talk’. Her story is much larger than theirs and to have her even begin to open her mouth is a whole new piece. Through the suitors we get to know her and her longing for Odysseus.”
Walsh has enjoyed a remarkably fruitful association with Druid with Penelope following the hugely successful stagings of Walworth Farce, New Electric Ballroom, Gentrification, and Lyndie’s Gotta Gun.
“We had an amazing time with The Walworth Farce, myself and Mikel [Murfi, the director of that play and of Penelope] had such a great time,” says Walsh. “I rarely work with the same people from one production to the next but with Druid, I just really want them to do my work and I love working with them and the production team. If I have a play I will show it to them first.”
Walsh has also distinguished himself in the world of film recently, scripting the award-winning Bobby Sands bio-pic, Hunger. He’s currently working on another biographical screenplay about Dusty Springfield.
“I’m a massive Motown fan, especially its early sixties’ stuff,” he says. “I was approached by Film Four and Steven Woolley, who is a complete music nerd, and they asked would I write it and I went ‘Who the hell is Dusty Springfield?!’ But I got interested in how you would make a drama from the material.
“The fact that she really hated her voice - the very thing we all love her for - is really interesting. She was a white middle class woman singing black music and that was difficult for her. So I’ve just written this ridiculously camp, showy piece that’s packed with music.
“It was incredibly fun to write; we’re at the stage now where a director needs to be attached; it’s always really weird when you’re working on something film-wise, it doesn’t really feel like a project until you’re actually writing for a director. It’s a bit like an acting job, you have to know who the director is then write for them. I know the script will probably change a lot tonally once the director becomes attached.”
Penelope stars Olga Wehrly in the title role. The four suitors are played by Denis Conway, Tadhg Murphy, Karl Shiels, and Niall Buggy. Mikel Murfi directs.
“It’s brilliant Mikel is directing it,” Walsh enthuses. “He’s really got the chops for it. I’m so excited about hearing the play being read now; I wrote the parts of the suitors with those four actors in mind and to have the four of them, well, I’m chuffed!”
Druid’s production of Penelope runs from July 8 to 24 as part of the Galway Arts Festival. Tickets are available from www.galwayartsfestival.com or (from June 21 ) at the festival Box Office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street, (091 - 566577 ). Penelope returns to the Town Hall Theatre from September 9 to 12. Tickets are now on sale from 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie