In The Penelopiad, writer Margaret Atwood offers a wry look at what was happening on the home front as Odysseus went off to perform the feats that filled The Odyssey, setting her play in Hades where the dead Penelope looks back at her 20-year wait for her husband’s return. As actor Megan Follows returns to the role of the cunning Penelope a year after she first played it in Toronto, she wonders whether the mythically loyal wife can have really have remained so chaste.
You play the patient Penelope as re-envisioned by the acerbic Atwood. What is the character like?
She is very clever and crafty; that is why she is a good pairing with Odysseus. They recognize that skill in one another. She is very young and has to learn how to run the kingdom. She is put into a position of maintaining status for him but not being able to own it for herself. She gets skilled at manipulating people.
She’s the woman who told her suitors she would not receive them until she had finished her weaving, and then unpicked her work every night. But how much of the manipulative personality is the myth and how much is Atwood?
There are elements in the original myth of the craftiness, even trying to prevent him going off in the war in the first place. But in the retelling, it gets looked at in a different way. What would that mean, waiting 20 years? How faithful is she? Hopefully she had a little bit of a good time somewhere in those 20 years.
What is it like returning to a role you already played successfully last year?
It feels deeper. There is another layer to explore in the monologues; her need to believe he wouldn’t have played tricks on her but her growing realization that he has. Why would she be any different from how he behaved with anyone else? I find the writing quite delicious. It’s a very playful piece, twisted, dark and within that [Atwood’s] wit is so sharp.
Otherwise, have you been doing mainly TV work?
No, I do a lot of theatre, and I have just been doing an independent film in Halifax. It’s called Hard Drive; it’s based on the book Ditch [by Hal Niedzviecki.] It is starring Douglas Smith, the young actor who was in [the HBO series] Big Love. I am playing his mother. That was a great process, putting together an entire film in three weeks. It was old school.
So, how does it feel playing somebody’s mother?
It feels like reality because I am somebody’s mother. I have two children myself. I always laugh; they have you playing mothers pretty early, us women. You look at the television, the mothers get younger and younger, and the children get older and older, and you start to wonder when these people had these children. Were they breeding when they were 12? It’s one of the defining archetypes for us.
How old are your children?
My daughter is 20 and my son is 18.
So, you were breeding when you were 12 too.
Do you have a preference for theatre or film?
What I love is a good role. In the theatre, there is just a canon of extraordinary roles, the quality of character is amazing, but I also love working in front of a camera. It was the first one for me; as a kid I was in front of a camera. I feel at home.
Twenty-five years after the Anne of Green Gables TV movies, people still recognize you as Anne. Does that get annoying?
I say, thank God we did it well, and we did. I was very proud. I know how difficult that journey was. To have failed would not have been good. It was a huge thing to live up to. It was not an easy character. She’s iconic, so people think they know what she is, but she was really multifaceted. She was not the appendage of a male character; she was No. 1. She had a lot of character defects that were fantastic to play. She had an uncontrollable temper; she was a compulsive talker; she had a rich fantasy life – all of which were products of the fact she was an orphan and raised in undesirable circumstances. And it is her intellect, her wit that turns that around and turns the community around. I think that is why that story has had lasting power.
The multifaceted aspect must have been challenging for a young actor.
And it was period – you couldn’t play it with a contemporary energy. It required a level that was foreign. That was exciting, not letting a contemporary cynicism in.
Unlike The Penelopiad!
The Nightwood Theatre production of The Penelopiad plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until Feb. 10.
This interview has been condensed and edited.