Penelope, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Michael Coveney
Wednesday 01 September 2010 00:00

Enda Walsh has long been one of the best and most challenging of all Irish playwrights; his new piece, Penelope breaks out of his Cork confines and deposits us in a drained swimming pool on the sweltering hot day of Odysseus's return.

There is blood on the tiles, but the last four desperadoes are still willing to throw themselves at the enigmatic she who surveys them from above, behind glass screens, prompting their outpourings of devotion.

This unobtainable siren is embodied wordlessly by Olga Wehrly in a turquoise dress, while the quartet of losers barbecue a sausage, and their own hopes: the elderly Fitz, played with a distracted intensity by Niall Buggy, is staving off images of his own burnt flesh while seeking companionship in some epic poetry.

The existentialist comedy blossoms between heroic ambition and low-level mundanity, filtered through the squabbling men and the risibility of their status. The soundtrack includes the theme from Gone with the Wind – but also The Benny Hill Show.

In its sense of never-ending futility, the play is a sort of Waiting for Godot with more pronounced Irish attitude. After this long hot summer, and gallons of booze, one suitor is said to be as useful as a cock in a convent, while another's seduction tactics have "all the skill of a fingerless fool filleting fish."

Mikel Murfi's production for the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company – now touring before coming to Hampstead Theatre next year – is driven by the dominance of Quinn (Karl Shiels), a sadist in red speedos, manipulating the urban savage Dunne (Denis Conway) and the hapless fantasist Burns (Tadhg Murphy) into positions of despair.

Nothing Walsh does is without interest. The speeches sparkle like jewels on a dung heap. But the acceleration of playful, farcical incident is a charmless, chaotic mess, even as the play's heart remains opaque, and shimmering, just like Penelope herself.

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