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Penthesilea
The Space
24th July 2013

★★★☆☆

Penthesilea

Photography supplied by Playades Theatre

Greek myths by their nature are blood-soaked, brutal and, more often than not, full of love and lust. As if Homer wasn't edgy enough, Playades Theatre have gone for a particularly controversial retooling of the classics in Heinrich von Kleist's early 19th-century play, Penthesilea, translated by Joel Agee. Here, the traditional epic is not just subverted but entirely rewritten, with gender politics thrown into the mix. The result is fiery, and for the most part, compelling.

Von Kleist presents a rather less sympathetic queen in, honestly, a fairly misogynistic play - unstageable according to Goethe. Rather than a great warrior, determined to see an early death in battle to atone for the accidentally killing of a fellow Amazon, Penthesilea (Rayyah McCaul) is on the brink of madness, obsessed with fighting and incapable of love. This contrasts with Achilles (Tim Carey-Jones), leader of the Greeks, willing to give up everything to follow his heart. But unfortunately for him, it's not just a boy meets girl story, but also boy versus girl.

The short story, is whilst attacking Troy, the Greeks are set upon by an army of Amazons, Penthesilea and Achilles meet on the battlefield, fall in love, but due to their positions as leaders of opposing factions, any kind of equal relationship is impossible. There can be no hope of a happy ending for the would-be couple.

Director Eva Mann does her best with Von Kleist's unfaithful work. In attempting to insert sexual frenzy into the piece, he only succeeds in demolishing a lot of the tale's original virtues - honour, love and a bit of necrophilia. Rather than an Amazon, the crazed Penthesilea here acts more like the wild followers of god of pleasure Dionysus. But in feel if not in form, this has been translated to stage as a more balanced piece. The boxes of sisterhood, empowerment and ferocity are all ticked for the feminists, with the blokes apparently more naive and, to be honest, weaker. A smart move since the original text can be off-putting to anyone with a womb - women are either mad or bad.

Maria Alexe,Cindy-Jane Armbruster and Victoria Tyrrell as the High Priestess, Asteria and Prothoe

Photography supplied by Playades Theatre

As Penthesilea's confidante Prothoe, Victoria Tyrrell brings a tenderness to the proceedings, a solider like the others, but also a more rounded character, certainly the most sympathetic. As her support of her queen and friend is pushed to its utmost, her palpable anguish brings out her softer side. And along with Asteria (Cindy-Jane Armbruster) and the High Priestess (Maria Alexe), the Amazons have a battle cry that Lucy Lawless would be proud of.

The men - Achilles, with support from Diomedes (George Bull), Antilochus (Alexander Clifford) and Odysseus (Samuel Humphreys) - match their female counterparts ably. It's just a shame that in an effort to skewer anything with two X chromosomes, von Kleist neglected to flesh any of their characters out, save Achilles.

The white paper back wall from Eva Ott allows Mann to play with some great shadow effects in the opening scenes - and emphasises a shocking and stunningly powerful closer in which McCaul delivers a terrifying insanity. The simple costumes, elements of both the male and female design complementing each other, hint at some sense of equality. Both Penthesilea and Achilles have a red line integrated into their costumes, distinguishing themselves from their subjects and hinting at their passion. The loin-stirrings too are represented by Mann's copious use of blood - anyone familiar with Carrie will enjoy the potent symbolism that this entails.

Pushing 90 minutes, the London preview was overlong, and it did feel like there was some slack in the final third, during Penthesilea's speeches. The company will no doubt trim this, and Edinburgh's overrunning penalties should be sufficient to sharpen the narrative. But a barnstorming opening and a worthy ending are enough to warrant a watch. Certainly, the culmination of Penthesilea's madness is wonderfully executed, with the payoff excusing any earlier niggles. McCaul's final portrayal is deliciously unhinged, with her eyes full of glee, pride, horror and above all, passion.

Penthesilea runs from 22nd July to 28th July at The Space (no performances Thursday to Saturday). It then runs from 1st August to 25th August 2013 at SweetVenues, International 2, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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