Hit and myth as Homer hits Hampstead
A couple of years ago, my friend and dramaturg Tilman Raabke asked me to write a play for Theatre Oberhausen in the Ruhr region of German. The idea was to commission five European playwrights with each of us handling a particular section of the Odyssey. I had read the Odyssey as a boy and was always interested in Penelope's suitors. These are the despicable men who hung around her house eating her food, drinking her wine and all the time trying to win her love while her husband, Odysseus, took the long road home. They felt perfect for the stage.
After 20 years of competing against each other and living in each others' stink, how would these men act with each other? How could they continue what they were doing? Oberhausen has a great history of industry but the good old days are long gone. I thought that the audience there may relate to the faded grandeur of my suitors and in Ireland, too, the audience there might see these characters as the cause and now the debris of the economic downturn. There is something of that in Penelope. To write directly about the financial collapse of Ireland is something I can't do, but in an oblique way it's there.
Very simply, it became a play about men trying to salvage something from their wasted failed lives. Odysseus will return from his journey that very day and the suitors will be killed by him. As they wait for the inevitable, what happens is an evaluation of the self. I suppose the setting is comic. The four remaining suitors hang out at the bottom of a drained swimming pool drinking cocktails, eating Twiglets and bitching with each other. We're watching men in swimwear having journeys of their own as their terrible deaths approach. In this pool, words of love have been used for 20 years to entrap a woman who seems emotionally suspended in her waiting for her husband. Salvation will be won if these unlikely men can save love and return it to Penelope.
I never plan anything I write. Homer had created a fantastic situation to write from and the play, as with my other plays, is fuelled by my own anxieties. Men in Speedos having an existential crisis seemed funny and cruel but I didn't expect to show so much of myself. Despite my deep-rooted disillusionment, it seems I am a romantic. Good God.
'Penelope', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301; www. hampsteadtheatre.com) to 5 March
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