I went to the opening night of Nightwood Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad in January. It’s their second run–last year’s run sold out. The play, scripted by Margaret Atwood and based on her witty and troubling novella of the same name, retells the myth of Odysseus–only from the perspective of the Ancient Greek hero’s overlooked wife, Queen Penelope.
What’s it like to be left holding the baby when your husband goes to war for ten years–then takes another ten to wander back? How do you stay faithful with hundreds of aggressive suitors vying to take his place? And if keeping the love alive on his return means leaving the big things unsaid, how do handle your grief over the slaying of innocents from your household on your husband’s command?
Megan Follows leads an all-woman cast in Nightwood Theatre’s latest production, running until February 10, 2013. The Anne of Green Gables star plays Penelope with agility, bouncing between the nervous 15-year-old bride, anxious middle-aged mother and eternally tortured Hades-roaming incarnations of her character. Her castmates, meanwhile, do their own gymnastics, switching from giggling maids, saucy goddesses and haughty mothers into brazen young suitors, elusive husbands and angry, fatherless sons–then back again–from one scene to the next.
I remember laughing loudly at this play until intermission, yet by the time the full story had unfolded, my chest felt tight; my ears rang with haunting chants and my mind was flashing back to images of kicking, strung-up bodies. You leave with a deep sense of Penelope’s despair, her strength, and yet her powerlessness as a woman.
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As a food editor, I tend to fixate on dining scenes in plays, movies and books. The first in The Penelopiad is Penelope’s wedding banquet. The teen bride in her boxy hat has such serious pre-wedding-night jitters–and is so jealous of her thunder-stealing cousin Helen–that she can’t eat a bite.
Later we join the people of Ithaca, where Penelope becomes queen, for dinner. Those guys are fun to watch: They have the table manners of cavemen, and as I watch them strip the flesh from make-believe bones with their teeth, I can almost see the grease and gristle dripping down their chins.
But my favourite food scene is the third–it’s simply lovely. There comes a point when the queen starts getting together with her maids in the dead of night to unpick a shroud that she has been weaving. (Penelope has promised her aggressive suitors she’ll pick one as a second husband, just as soon as the shroud is done.) As tends to happen when women get together, these meetings becomes festive–a time to eat sweet stuff, share secrets and laugh.
“Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks smuggled in treats for us to nibble on–figs in season, bread dipped in honeycomb, heated wine in winter,” says Penelope. “We told stories as we worked away at our task of destruction; we shared riddles; we made jokes. In the flickering light of the torches our daylight faces were softened and changed, and our daylight manners. We were almost like sisters.”
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After the play, I wanted to create a dish inspired by this scene. I came up with a Mediterranean-style bread made with ingredients as delicious as they are symbolic.
Chopped figs stuffed into the dough and a honey glaze on the bread’s crust pay homage to Melantho’s gifts at the midnight feast. And I used the juice of blood oranges for soaking the figs, making them tender with a sharp-sweet taste. The dramatic red liquid also represents the bloodshed to come. I switched the usual olive oil in my dough recipe for walnut oil to lend extra warmth, capturing the mood of the cozy midnight feasts.
There’s a sprinkling of sea salt on top of the bread too, to represent Odysseus’s long ocean journey home. And there’s chopped rosemary as well–the herb signifies remembrance in Ancient Greece, and Penelope needs all the help she can get keeping 20-years-absent Odysseus in her thoughts.
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I had the opportunity to bring Megan Follows a loaf of Midnight Maids’ Bread, and some honeycomb for dipping, when I went to interview her last week. She took it to the theatre later to share with her castmates and apparently it disappeared fast–news that made my heart burst!
Find our interview below, and click here for the recipe and a video showing how to make the bread.