The Return of Ulysses (5 stars)

This article is from 2009.

The Return of Ulysses

And they all lived happily ever after. But what happened next?

Homeric purists will be disappointed here. This is a tale of Penelope, not Ulysses, and it takes place almost entirely after the return of the hero – in narrative terms, after the end of the Odyssey. By the end of scene one Ulysses has returned, dispatched the suitors with a series of gunshots almost before we’ve had time to work out what’s going on, and it’s back to married life between Penny and her long-awaited manshape.

But what do you do when you reach the end of an epic? What follows the happily-ever-after? For this Penelope, ten years of waiting have taken their toll, and the mind-numbing rituals which have kept her going through her husband’s absence – weaving by day, by night unpicking her work – have become so deeply rooted in her consciousness that even with Ulysses home and her long lookout over she is unable to banish the ghosts of a decade-long waiting game from her mind. Penelope has lived for the return of her husband, but once that goal is realised there is nothing left for her to do but to go back to the past, relive the trials and routines of her ten-year vigil, and carry on waiting for Ulysses.

Eva Dewaele and the Royal Ballet of Flanders have created a tragic and riveting Penelope. The action of the ballet is slow, but to watch Penelope descend, through a succession of dances with the ghosts of her suitors, from purposeful flirtation and skilful deflection to a worn-out state of near submission, is a gripping psychological spectacle. Dewaele’s dancing, at first smooth and elegant and classical, has by the close of the ballet declined into a thrusting, unwilling, graceless set of motions, and as she is passed from one suitor to the next she is more assault victim than resilient queen. I left the Edinburgh Playhouse with a powerfully redefined image of what a 21st century Penelope might look like.

Awkwardness and disjointedness permeates every part of the production, and it is disjunction that keeps Christian Spuck’s Return of Ulysses so watchable. The music skips between Purcell and 40s and 50s dance numbers, so that Penelope seems at times a magnificent Dido, at times a sullen prom queen. It’s one of the suitors who addresses the grand Greek heroine as ‘Penny’, proclaiming his love in terms as trite as any boyband boy might aspire to. Suitors and corps-de-ballet vary between classical steps and a modernism which is set halfway between classical ballet and jive dancing, producing wonderfully languid balletic responses to Doris Day’s ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’ on the tape recorder.

The final disjunction, relief from, and second perspective on all this mortal psychodrama comes from some good old divine powerplay. Human tragedy? All part of the fun of the festival. Every now and then a snappily attired, gold-suited air-hostess Athena prances out on stage to remind Penelope and Ulysses that it’s her game they’re part of, and at one point Penelope’s poignant sufferings are interrupted by a walk-on from Poseidon, resplendent in flippers, goggles and massive tutu, and flexing a remarkable set of arm muscles. Carry on shaking your lovely red hair, Penelope, and the more tormented you look the more we’ll enjoy watching you. Oh the drama! Yes, we do feel your pain, but we like it even more when it’s set to Doris Day.

Edinburgh Playhouse, 473 2000, until 24 Aug, 8pm & 2.30pm, £10–£42.


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