The Penelopiad, St James' Church, Piccadilly, London

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The Independent Culture

The Penelopiad is part of "The Myths" series, laun-ched by Canongate Books and encompassing 33 publishers worldwide, for which prestigious writers tell new versions of ancient myths . On Wednesday, Atwood staged a dramatic reading of The Penelopiad with help from Phyllida Lloyd, who first met Atwood while directing the opera of The Handmaid's Tale.

This is no mundane book-reading. As the lights dim, Atwood's Ottawan monotone drawls out - the disembodied voice of Penelope. Her Penelope is far from the chaste wife of legend who "wept, wove and waited". Her wit and laconic assessment of her marital situation make her a modern, desperate housewife.

Penelope's story is supplemented by a chorus of her maids, whom Odysseus hanged on his return. Here, they are played by Heather Craney, Rebecca Jenkins and Kim Medcalf. The trio bound on to the platform, full of female reproach. They are the bawdy, raucous foil to Atwood's droll delivery.

The extract ends with the maids serenading Penelope as she embarks on married life. Although somewhat stagily performed, the shanty ("It's hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat") is tragically ironic, as we know that solitude awaits their mistress. But Atwood avoids sentimentality. On her wedding day, Penelope describes herself as a "package of meat in a wrapping of gold", and Atwood tackles the myth of Penelope's legendary chastity by hinting at rumours of up to 120 lovers.

The performance is unusual but comes together to make complete sense - what better way to retell the myth of Odysseus, originally an oral history, than through simple performance and song? After the show, when asked why she has set her novels in societies which oppress women, Atwood answers wryly, without missing a beat, "I'm a realist."