Myths make great theatre

By Monica Prendergast, April 2014

Atwood’s The Penelopiad is just one of the myths to think about in April’s theatre offerings.

Want to write a play? Or an opera? Touch base with a myth for inspiration. As did the ancient Greeks. And the Romans. Many times I have seen myths transformed into staged versions: Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Medea by Euripides, Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, Phèdre by Jean Racine. The original pagan stories, at once both naturalistic and metaphysical, portray the interacting lives of gods and humans. These tales make comic and tragic approaches equally great.

Indeed, the classical dramatic forms of comedy and tragedy informing the entire western theatrical tradition arose out of the staging of mythology. On one very important level, the use of myth as a continuing source for dramatic works is an ongoing inter-generational project. We encounter a very old and treasured storied space when we partake of mythology on stage. This is a vital way for us to enter into our own culture.  

And the culture of others. Myths from almost any culture you can name will have dramatic translations of them performed in religious and secular community settings; in ways proscribed by ritual, open to purely aesthetic experimentation and everything in between. Cross-cultural collaborations on sharing and exploring myths have become more common in the 21st century. I view this trend as all to our collective betterment. How better to develop relationships of mutual understanding within a diverse society and “globalized” world?

Last year I attended a presentation by the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. The project, Interlaced, was an evening of storytelling involving community members from three faith traditions: Jewish, Ismaili Muslim and Hindu. Witnessing this coming together to share mythical tales as well as personal anecdotes with universal significance was emotionally moving and ethically inspiring. 

This month, Langham Court provides us with the opportunity to experience the power of mythology on stage as composed by one of our greatest living artists. Margaret Atwood was invited by the publisher Canongate to write a short novel on any ancient myth of her choice. Apparently, she reflected for some time before selecting from The Odyssey the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus no less.

Embodied in this character is the trope of “The Woman Who Waits.”  While her husband fights a very long war and then takes a hell of a long time getting home, this supremely patient wife sits, spins and unravels her spinning to spin it all over again. This occupation symbolizes her eternal fidelity. More prosaically, Penelope and her female servants struggle to keep at bay many unwelcome suitors who would be king. When Odysseus finally does come home there is vengeance. Some of it falls, unjustly, onto the maids. They are killed for sexually engaging with the enemy, their defence tactic taken as treason.

In Atwood’s version, Penelope’s sisterhood with her maids becomes the focal point of the story. Penelope herself and a chorus from beyond the grave that gives voice to the executed women narrate it. This feminist retelling does not flinch from portraying the suffering heaped upon women by selfish and violent masculine power. Yet, there is humour along with the anger in the powerfully poetic expression.

Atwood published The Penelopiad in 2005 and it was translated and sold in dozens of countries worldwide. Following the success of the novel, Atwood crafted the dramatic adaptation that became an acclaimed co-production between Canada’s National Arts Centre and the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007.

Mounted numerous times since, I saw a production of the play a few years back here in Victoria. Directed by Barbara Poggemiller at the Canadian College of the Performing Arts, (paired with poet Derek Walcott’s retelling of The Odyssey performed by an all-male cast), the all-female cast delivered Atwood’s text through simple but effective movement-based theatricality. Lots of inventive use of fabrics and scarves. I can still picture a beautiful ship with sails raised that was conjured up by the whole cast.

Penelopiad is a wonderfully challenging text with which an ensemble may fruitfully wrestle. Having seen it done once by young actors, I am looking forward to Langham Court’s production because it will likely feature a mixed-age company, as best fits the story. Directed by Wendy Merk, the production will also feature original music composed by Ivana Jokic and Liam Gibson. If you are an Atwood admirer and appreciate the mythical in performance, this production (April 24 to May 10) is simply not to be missed.

Yet there is more to consider taking in throughout April. 

If we expand our definition of the mythic to include that which is legendary or fabulous, Equivocation at the Belfry is easily included since in this sense it features the mythic status of The Bard. American playwright Bill Cain’s 2009 play imagines that the most legendary and fabulous playwright who ever lived has been commissioned by the British government to write a propaganda play. The topic is the infamous 1605 Gunpowder Plot rebellion by a group of Catholics and their foiled plan to blow up the Parliament Building. The character of Shakespeare in Cain’s imagining resists this job, but is forced into it. What we see unfold are the offstage events in Shakespeare’s attempt to discover the truth behind the rebellion alongside scenes from his play as it is being rehearsed by his company. Equivocation runs April 22 to May 25.

Blue Bridge’s revival and adaptation of Ken Mitchell’s 1974 musical play Cruel Tears (April 29 to May 11) is an example of how Shakespeare’s works have themselves become myth-like templates. Mitchell’s popular musical play is based on Shakespeare’s Othello, but set in the Saskatchewan present. Instead of a warrior-prince Moor, the country musical features a Ukrainian truck driver called Johnny Roychuk who is driven to murder his beloved wife Kathy in a fit of jealousy. The play has a chorus that echoes the use of choruses in the Ancient Greek and Roman theatres and in so doing raises the story of a working class trucker to the status of myth. In Blue Bridge’s new version, Lagrimas Crueles, Puente Theatre’s Artistic Director Mercedes Bátiz-Benét gives the mythologizing wheel yet another turn. The story is now about a Mexican truck driver who falls in love with his American boss’s daughter.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is not a mythically sourced opera, unlike his later The Magic Flute. Yet, as with Shakespeare, myths have sprung up around and about this great artist. For better and for worse, hero worship has been involved in most mythologies and is definitely prominent in modern individualism. The person who makes a unique stamp on history is subject to Great Genius mythologization. Shakespeare and Mozart are perfect examples of this, even though we know they worked throughout their careers with collaborators essential to the creative process.

No auteur is an island. The point here is to remember that the performing arts are the most social of art forms, inherently requiring groups of allies and associates to ensure that operas, symphonies and plays fulfill their potential in performance. We revere Will and Wolfgang, but should not forget the many partners and patrons who ensured their genius was realized. Oh yes, the point here is also to remember that Pacific Opera presents Figaro April 24 to May 4.

Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio's On the Island (90.5 FM), teaches and researches drama/theatre education and applied theatre, and has worked as an actor or director on many stages in Victoria and beyond.