In a drained swimming pool – which must surely just be a posh hole – four men wait. They have been waiting for years, trying to win the love of the idolised Penelope whose husband, Odysseus, is away at war. Once there were many suitors, now just this quartet remains, trying each day to win their goddess’s affections. Yet with each passing minute, the return of the conquering hero moves closer and with it their imminent, revenge-fuelled, bloody deaths.
Penelope is one of those plays where not a lot happens. The four men, sporting only Speedos and robes, have little to do but wait, bicker, profess their love and wait some more, though a shared prophetic dream about Odysseus’s gory homecoming adds impetus to their wooing.
The set up is more than a little Beckettian, though Walsh adds a visceral, almost malleable, texture to his text. If Godot had been a bloodthirsty cut-throat with an axe to grind, Vladimir and Estragon may have sounded more like Walsh’s Fitz, Dunne, Burns and Quinn.
They are a group representative of the differing shapes of a man. The youngest, Burns, is the whipping boy, still finding his feet. Quinn, in his 40s, is a posturing, posing picture of virility. 50-year-old Dunne has seen the effect of gravity on his constitution but has a more poetic, knowledgeable soul, while Fitz, in his 60s, is quietly comfortable with himself. Each reacts in a different way to love and to each other, trying to rectify friendship with the need for competition. It is unmistakably masculine.
Walsh’s piece is packed with questions and thought-provoking turns as the foursome turn their thoughts inwards at the ever-approaching step of death.
The piece also gives every performer a chance to shine, with at least one grand speech each to deliver. Notably Niall Buggy, as the elder statesman of the group, stutters and stumbles as he tries to win Penelope’s heart before quietly, calmly holding the audience in the palm of his sun-baked hand as he considers a beautiful nothingness from where new love can grow. It is a speech delivered with complete stillness, utter conviction and is genuinely moving.
This may not be laugh-a-minute fare, but it is a compelling piece rich in ideas and questions, not least among them, why on earth would you use a blowtorch to cook a sausage if you were only wearing orange Speedos for protection?