The Women’s Circus performs ‘The Penelopiad’

In a production marking the 25th anniversary of Footscray’s famed Women’s Circus, ‘The Penelopiad‘, 30 ordinary Australian women work on stage to tell tales of sisterhood and female power within a world of male control.

A compelling story, their earthy version draws on Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s novella, which retells Homer’s Odyssey myth through the eyes of the heroine, Penelope. The text has an everyday, singsong quality, sounding like any woman today speaking of life in a world which privileges male authority and rule.


Penelope is married off young to warlord Odysseus and relocates to her in-laws’ land of Ithaca. Bearing one son, she occupies her time with her female slaves. They weave and spin, sharing their lives and thoughts. This peaceful and harmonious women’s domain is the bulk of what we see on stage.

Her story concerns female fidelity, as she waits loyally for her husband’s return (away for 20 years fighting in the Trojan War). Penelope spurns 108 suitors for her hand, with the ruse that she cannot marry until she completes weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. Each night, she secretly unravels some of her work, so that this will never eventuate. On his return, her husband, disguised as a beggar, tests her. She declares an archery contest for all the suitors, which Odysseus wins. He then slaughters all the attempted suitors — along with all of Penelope’s ladies, who are supposed to have tempted the men.


The Women’s Circus, whose origins were as training facility for survivors of domestic violence, weave in a commentary on ‘these dark times’ still existing. Harm to women is not something that remained in the ancient world, which recent high-profile cases of marital homicide show. The company outline the dark themes of murder, blood lust, and the ties that bind in a domestic framing.

The historic Drill Hall is rustic and cavernous and has an ancient feel to it. The storytelling, by such a big numbers on stage, is dramatically framed by a high rear wall painted pitch black. Decorated with blood-red fishing netting and a weaver’s loom, the cast stand against it in clusters of elegiac relief, like the people etched on ancient amphorae.


Seeing this many women on stage is exciting! Each one varies in look, dimension, colour, age, and voice, as Penelope’s woman servants themselves would have. This also represents the company’s remit to show real women, and their work in restorative empowerment through circus training.

The skills on offer span partner acrobatics, strength-sharing, aerial rope work, tumbling. There are also the ancient bardic skills of oral storytelling, live musicianship, and chanting — much like the classical Greek chorus. Story scenes are inventively recreated by the cast’s use of body, group, and puppetry devices.


There is a street-level feel, as if you had wandered into a town square and all the woman suddenly spoke, recounting their stories. With a rousing feel of female solidarity, this is akin to a feminist flashmob which educates, heals, and empowers.

– Sarah
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold, and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

‘The Penelopiad’ runs 22-27 November, 8pm Tuesday-Saturday, 2pm Saturday & Sunday (60 mins) at Drill Hall (395 Barkly Street, West Footscray). Book tickets now.
The venue is wheelchair accessible.

Warning: contains images of violence against women.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were the guests of Sassy Red PR.
Image credit: Jacinta Oaten.