Enda Walsh’s Penelope is a tragicomic reinterpretation of the classic Greek myth of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, whose story is recounted in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope was first performed by Druid Theatre Company in Druid Lane Theatre at the Galway Arts Festival on 13 July 2010. The production subsequently toured to Edinburgh, Helsinki and New York. (A version of the play in German had previously been performed at Theater Oberhausen, Germany, in February 2010.)
The play concerns the attempts of four men to win the heart of Penelope in the absence of her warrior husband, Odysseus, who is away fighting the Trojan wars. Quinn, Dunne, Fitz and Burns are supposedly the last of a long succession of suitors; all that remains of a fifth, Murray, is a bloodstain on the wall of the drained swimming pool in which they live out their days. We learn that Murray committed suicide the day before. Burns attempts to scrub away the blood, to no avail. A barbecue stands towards the rear of the pool; it has never been lit and is the source of great curiosity and fear amongst the men. In a shared dream, they see it bursting into flames, heralding their death at the hands of the returning Odysseus. Penelope, separated from the men, stands on a platform above and unseen from the pool. Each man in turn attempts to win her affections through a monologue relayed to her via a television screen. But as the day wears on, signs and premonitions of Odysseus’ return grow more ominous and they formulate a plan to work together in order that one of them may succeed in winning Penelope, thus saving the others from Odysseus’ revenge. In a climactic sequence, Quinn performs a quick-change cabaret routine to the music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, appearing as famous historical lovers including Napoleon and Josephine, and Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. Finally he is stabbed by Burns. Dunne and Fitz take part in the stabbing and Quinn is killed. Burns makes a final address to Penelope in which he argues for their collective redemption through love and human affection, but when the barbecue bursts into flames, the fate of the suitors is sealed.
In his Foreword to Enda Walsh Plays: Two (Nick Hern Books, 2014), Walsh writes: 'My one attempt to talk specifically about ‘something that was actually happening’ was in the play Penelope. When the crash in 2008 decimated the fantasy that Ireland had created for itself, a German theatre in Oberhausen had already approached me and four other European playwrights to each take a section of the Odyssey to adapt. I was reading a lot about Irish bankers and financiers who were either killing themselves or being publicly vilified. I decided to write a play about Penelope’s suitors as they await their collective murder. It became part-situation-comedy, part-existential-scratching – scored by Herb Alpert.'
The Druid production was directed by Mikel Murfi and designed by Sabine Dargent. It was performed by Niall Buggy, Denis Conway, Tadhg Murphy, Karl Shiels and Olga Wehrly.
The play received its London premiere at Hampstead Theatre in February 2011.