“How soon after you were married was your husband deployed?”
In one of the more interesting moves that an artistic director of a theatre anywhere in the UK has made, Derby Theatre’s Sarah Brigham has commissioned a set of one-woman plays from some interesting names indeed, to respond to the main house programme. The RETOLD series begins with Caroline Horton’s Penelope RETOLD which accompanies The Odyssey by placing Odysseus’ wife Penelope full square and centre.
Developed with director Lucy Doherty, Horton’s monologue imagines a current day Penelope, borrowing from the contemporary military wives trope to create something more recognisably modern. And skipping around through the nineteen years of her enforced separation from her husband the general, she finds something deeply moving in the challenges faced this woman, and indeed many others in similar scenarios.
The intimate surroundings of a rehearsal room deep in the theatre proves the ideal venue for the show, set in Penelope’s bedroom from where she indulges in the occasional weepy film but mainly throws herself into good works – filming supportive video entries for a website for the wives, delivering chirpily good advice in the form of a list of dos and don’ts –trying to distract herself from the reality of her situation.
Which emerges as pretty brutal. A relationship that barely had time to get started before he went off to war, a society berating her for not being perfect enough, a stranger returning from the battlefield disrupting the life she has built, Horton really throws herself into the emotional morass of this woman and demands our attention with it, soulful eyes appealing for validation, reassurance that everything will be ok just like in the films.
As an exercise in itself, it is a fascinating bit of drama from a most exciting performer. And as a companion piece to The Odyssey, it is a thought-provoking response to gender bias in so many of our classic stories and plays.