Penelope, review: Tom Stoppard’s 21st-century Odyssey sells its heroine short

Actress Hattie Morahan - Rii Schroer
Actress Hattie Morahan - Rii Schroer

Why are writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Wole Soyinka, Kamila Shamsie, Stephen Fry, Anne Carson and now, Tom Stoppard (who has reworked the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife) compelled to return again and again to Greek myths for fresh inspiration? Despite their lexicon of fantastical monsters, capricious deities and super-humans, these myths seem to endure because the emphases of their meanings are constantly changing over the passage of time, making them inhabit a perpetual present that links antiquity to modernity.

The challenge, then, for modern storytellers who want to retell these stories that we already know so well is to do so in a way that has something significant to say about their particular era and also brings fresh meaning to them. By this reasoning, a 21st-century rendering of the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope has to grapple with what might be going on in so-called wise Penelope’s mind to make her remain so loyal to Odysseus, weeping and weaving for another 10 years waiting for him to come home while he gallivants around the world following the decade-long Trojan war. It’s therefore a shame that even though Stoppard gives us a Penelope who speaks very eruditely for herself from beyond the grave, we still don’t get much of a sense of her inner life and what makes her tick.

Stoppard composed Penelope as a long-awaited commission for the late composer André Previn to be sung by the soprano Renée Fleming. Since its US première as a piece of music in Tanglewood in 2019, Stoppard has experimented with it as a spoken monodrama or a prose-poem (here presented online as a rehearsed reading for the charity Classics for All). There is much to admire here about his language, which is a sumptuously witty, sometimes earthy and mellifluously poetic delight to listen to as recited by Hattie Morahan.

He manages to root the story in modern-day parlance while still evoking the vivid imagery of Homeric poetry, but without sounding anachronistic. However, the only reason Stoppard can muster for Penelope’s steadfast faithfulness to Odysseus is because she thinks he is “godlike” with a “sure touch” that turns her on: “He would have me undress him and empty a pitcher over his steaming back, his breast, his hard thighs, and serve him till I was sated.”

Stoppard, by his own admission, didn’t have to do too much for this commission, and it shows. He may have placed Penelope in the centre of her own story, but he gives her no added agency other than fobbing off would-be suitors. It still revolves around Odysseus and doesn’t tell us anything new about Penelope that we didn’t intuit already, which therefore makes for very little emotional impact.

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