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The Bellicose Beauty of Penthesilea at the Space

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

In a time when social expectations of the female body in public space seem a particularly vexed issue at the forefront of the public imagination, Penthesilea opens vital space for exploring how those expectations might be reimagined. It also begs the question of what we really mean when we say a loved one is so adorable we could just eat them right up. At the Space.

Picture if you will, gentle reader, a woman running full-pelt down a road into the setting sun. Penthesilea pursuing Achilles? No, it’s the reviewer arriving late and gasping, flying around the corner straight into a bevy of actors in full Greek regalia about to enter the Space from outside the building. Fortunately, if ever there were a show worth running towards, it is this.

The action of Penthesilea takes place outside the walls of Troy, where the Greeks are interrupted at their siege by a sudden attack, seemingly without reason, by a tribe of women. Scornful of being called to fall back from battle with a bunch of girls, Achilles decides to fight on. Though surrounded by a group of Amazons he wounds the queen, Penthesilea, and escapes.

He does manage to have enough time on the battlefield to fall in love with her, though, and declares that none of the paltry Greek maidens can possibly satisfy him after viewing Penthesilea’s martial glory. For her part, Penthesilea isn’t content with winning the battle as she hasn’t managed to capture her quarry Achilles. Against the counsel of her advisers, Penthesilea decides to remain near the battlefield, where she becomes overpowered by Greeks chasing after the Amazons to reclaim their fellows earlier captured in battle.

At this point comes a small deception: the queen passes out and, while she is insensible, Achilles sends the other Greeks away. Penthesilea’s closest confidante Prothoe manages to weasel out of Achilles that he is in love with her and would gladly make her his queen. To help his suit, when the queen wakes Prothoe insists that Penthesilea was able to best Achilles in battle and has taken him prisoner.

There is a brief period of bliss before the queen discovers the truth, just around the time he threatens to drag her by the hair as a prisoner of war back to his home. She banishes him amid curses and threats on his life. Her rage is unparalleled. Then Achilles has the bright idea to challenge Penthesilea to single combat again, but this time he plans to let her win. Unfortunately for everybody, but mostly for Achilles, it doesn’t quite work out the way he hoped.

That cutesy “girl-eats-boy” in the marketing tagline? Not metaphorical. But don’t let the gore put you off: in performance it is a stunning, emotionally moving climax to a show that is played on full cylinders throughout.

Rayyah McCaul is mesmerising as Penthesilea. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and frequently found I was holding my breath watching her perform. Maria Alexe’s High Priestess is equally arresting and there are strong female performances also from Prothoe (Victoria Tyrrell) and Asteria (Cindy-Jane Armbruster). Tim Carey-Jones’s Achilles is every inch a warrior prince, but allowed a few moments of leavening humour with Prothoe and with the men. Samuel Humphreys plays a scornful, scholarly Odysseus. George Bull as Diomedes has a worldly humorousness, and Alexander Clifford gambols about as a clownish Antilochus.

The show opens with a visually and aurally stunning dance of combat and copulation, situating the audiences’ understanding of who the Amazons are. Physicality is a real strength of this production, including a charming interplay between formal dance gestures and naturalism. The dream, memory, and battle sequences make wonderful use of the performers’ physical capabilities.

Another strength is the relationships between the ensemble as a whole: though the plot revolves around the two principal players, there are also terrifically affecting scenes between Penthesilea and her coterie that provide a rarely staged look at power dynamics in female groups. The blokey relationships among the Greek men evoke laughter of recognition from the audience.

Some companies might fall into the trap of interpreting Heinrich von Kleist’s dark foray into German romanticism as a post or anti-feminist warning about what happens when women are allowed to get too powerful. But it is clear that this strong female-led production is a rallying cry against the psychological insupportability of all forms of tyranny, including those which we become complicit in imposing on ourselves. Joel Agee’s translation gives a contemporary sense of irony that allows for depth of interpretation.

I heard from two people that the acoustics in The Space made it difficult for them to understand the actors at points. I was in the front, so if anything I was, at times, overwhelmed by the intensity of their delivery. Constantly watching the most fervid end of every emotion, even when perfectly in keeping with the production, does become wearying. Some of the actors appear more conversant with stage combat techniques than others: there are definite moments, especially during the mens’ horeseplay early in the show, where I become distracted by concern for the safety of one or two actors who seem to take some pretty hard falls. I admire the bold physical nature of this production, but additional work needs to be done for the audience to feel secure that the injuries are all make-believe.

Those tiny criticisms aside, it is truly a show worth seeing and worth mulling over for long after.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 28 July 2013.