“Ten thousand years in the future, long after the Côte d’Azur had been abandoned, the first explorers would puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons and stylized fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race of visionary geometers.“
The empty swimming pool was a leitmotif for J. G. Ballard. It first appeared in his 1967 one-sentence short story Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, then reappeared in High-Rise, Hello America, Cocaine Nights, Miracles of Life. That it is referenced twice in Empire of the Sun, in which Ballard recalls returning to his abandoned family home, hiding out from Japanese soldiers and watching the pool slowly drain day by day, suggests some biographical trace. But it is the quote above, taken from his 1993 novel Supercannes, that gets closer to the larger significance Ballard attached to the image. A sign of Western exhaustion, future hauntologies of hedonism, the simultaneous sense of awe and immanent despair at the infrastructure that underpins late-capitalism’s lifestyles.
As we watch the water ebb away, Enda Walsh’s Penelope decamps the Homeric story to the bottom of an empty swimming pool. And Sabine Dargent’s set, with louche bar, rackety fixtures, makes for a grubbily eloquent image of decline. The hundred suitors of myth have been reduced to four; men who have flown what is loosely referenced as the Irish economic collapse and the end of Western civilisation. Ludicrous characters who primp, pomp, and lounge around like King of the Hill meets Tool Academy. Businessmen, “who would sell their granny for a deal”.
Unlike the community of skaters in the film Dogtown and Z-Boys, who gather around their empty aquatic arena with a spirit of shared purpose, a wary sense of competition pervades the men’s relationships, alliances are half-struck, group-decisions made to forgo trust. Where the Z-Boys engage in repurposing and revivifying their amenity the men are happy to sit around in it, waiting, in a parody of luxury, drinking, squabbling, middle-aged and ridiculousness. Yet their purposes are clear: to out-survive, to overcome, to win Penelope’s hand and thereby save themselves. Contrast this to Con Air, and Steve Buscemi’s serial killer. His tea-party by the empty pool with a small girl. a scene of travesty and menace, ultimately results in the eerie control of the psychopath transformed into some kind of abstinence, elevating him to a moral superiority over the audience who imagine and expect child-murder. No such attempts are made by Walsh, who relishes in taking the lead in dragging us down. The debasement of man, his, hypocrisy, violence, weakness and stupidity, is elaborated with the insistent Oedipal relish of a son simmeringly furious at old dad. Murderous impulses abound, and abstinence is queasily enforced. And where Con Air’s pool becomes a tease to the moral tides of Middle Transatlantia, Penelope’s greedily reflects our worst excesses as a species.
Salvation for these men, it appears, comes in lyrical honesty, vulnerability. And lyricism is Walsh’s strength. The men’s soliloquys, as they speak into a microphone to communicate to the semi-mythical Penelope, are bravura pieces of writing, fluid, rapturous – and well-handled by the capable cast. A particular highlight is Niall Buggy’s exquistely-paced monologue in which he gently turns an image of senility, the spaces behind his mind, into a possibility for a new life. The play’s best moment comes with an unexpected and marvellous scene of rapid costume changes, in which Karl Shiel’s macho caricature performs a tongue-in-cheek am-dram visual sonnet, through Napoleon and Jospehine, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, JFK and Jacqui – in all of about forty seconds. Twee madness, with an economy of direction that augments the ludicrous atmosphere, by dint of being so absurdly deft.
There is a swagger to Walsh’s writing, a cocksureness, which parades along the shoreline of prose like a sock in a pair in of speedos, and is never quite tempered – be it by the passages of sweetness and honesty, or the violent imagery of viscera. The men mark their predicament with scattershot collections of aphorisms and philosophical insights that feel like poses beneath the pose. The absurdism coined from another Irishman Beckett feels flimsy, and while the “thrownness” of existence rarely has a cuter setting than a drained swimming pool, at times you’d prefer someone to be dragging their nails across the tiles, such is the mistaking of irrelevance for the drama of miscommunication. Tranches of dialogue, like a clothesline, bump and flutter, overcoloured, and despite Walsh’s evident flair for rhythm and image, lose shape.
Ultimately we get a play that reaches, a what takes place feels slightly muddled. Billy Wilder was a great fan of Raymond Chandler, ‘He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. “There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming-pool.” That is a great line, a great one’. For the powerful tide of words that carries us away, Penelope doesn’t quite fill the pool.