Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Words ... Words ... Words: The Novel, the Play, the Production

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Words ... Words ... Words: The Novel, the Play, the Production

Article excerpt

This paper looks, with two pairs of eyes, at a Montenegrin translation of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad produced by Toronto-based April Productions for the Purgatorio Festival / 2012 in Tivat, Montenegro. The two perspectives are presented in turn by Dragana Varagic, the director and producer, followed by Kathleen Irwin, the set designer.


As Artistic Director of Toronto April Productions, I was invited to direct and co-produce a Canadian-Montenegrin co-production as part of the Canada Culture Days in Tivat under the patronage of the Embassy of Canada. The condition was that the play had to fit the Festival Purgatorio programming that produces and presents only plays related to Mediterranean theatre traditions. My first task was to suggest a Mediterranean play from Canada. I almost quit.

But, when I heard that the other Festival production would be an adaptation of Don Quixote with an almost entirely male cast, The Penelopiad, with an entirely female cast, immediately came to mind, even though the concept of a female cast playing both male and female characters is not very common in the Montenegro theatre tradition. Situated in Hades, The Penelopiad is written in a contemporary language and intersected with songs and dances. The play retells a part of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view, mixing references to the ancient myth with contemporary overtones. Odysseus's killing of the maids upon his return from Troy is the event that spins Margaret Atwood's play. It merges classical theatre traditions in its structure with modern theatre traditions in its style. In her introduction to The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood states that "the chorus of Maids is in part a tribute to the use of the chorus in Greek tragedy, in which lowly characters comment on the main action" (vi). Her Penelope addresses the twenty-first-century audience from Hades, while her Maids sing songs ranging from ironic rope-jumping rhymes to ballads and Tennysonian Idylls. The Penelopiad's postmodern approach opens up a space for an untold female perspective of the ancient story.

The play received very significant international theatre exposure through a co-production between the National Arts Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007, combining Canadian and British talents. It was also performed in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto. All of these productions transported the English language audiences across time and space to ancient Greece. We took the opposite route, transporting the Canadian play based on a Mediterranean myth back to its original setting, surrounded by an audience from a culture firmly rooted in myths and legends. At the same time, we introduced a modern Canadian perspective by emphasizing the importance of women's voices. It was the first production of the play in translation.

Montenegro is in every way a Mediterranean country, not only geographically with its seashores, ancient city-centres, hot and dry weather, but also traditionally with myths living at the core of its culture. Montenegro is well known for its epic poems from the past usually sung with the accompaniment of an ancient instrument called the gusle. Almost every citizen can quote from these epic poems that tell stories about heroic battles, beautiful women inspiring men's heroic deeds, as well as philosophical thoughts about the purpose of life. In the past women were traditionally viewed as supporters, enablers of men's heroic deeds, but did not play a prominent part as initiators and leaders. Montenegro has a long history of men leaving homes for wars, or working on transatlantic ships, while women stay home taking care of children and the land. I was certain that Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad would have a perfect audience there and that the play would resonate deeply.

I am a Serbian-Canadian theatre maker. I was born in Yugoslavia, a country that dissolved during the civil war into six independent states. …

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