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Eline Arbo's Penthesilea oscillates between madness and horniness at the Holland Festival

At the walk-in, several actors dribble across the bare stage. No set pieces, few lights, a little smoke from the machine. Slowly, the stage fills, and the actors line up at the front of the stage. The first scene is sung, a surprising choice. Then Diana, the high priestess of the Amazons, a brilliant role by Marieke Heebink, holds a monologue telling the story.

That story can be traced back to that of the impossible love between Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, and Achilles, the Greek army commander.

The Amazons, a matriarchal society, live without men but need them from time to time to sustain their people. The Greeks have been engaged in a gruesome war against the Trojans for a decade. Achilles is the Greek captain. Out of pride and revenge, he committed the greatest sin imaginable: he tied the body of his Trojan enemy Hector behind a horse and chariot and dragged it around the city. A funeral was denied Hector.

At the beginning of the play, the Amazonians thunder into the battlefield to choose the best genes for their reproduction. It is not intended to create romantic alliances: while it may be pleasant, it is primarily a useful event.

Queen Penthesilea, however, has her eye on Achilles and will not rest until she scores his seed.

Fresh breeze

Director and soon-to-be ITA director Eline Arbo breathes new life into this time-honoured theme with some bold aesthetic choices. The bare stage setting with its tight lighting plan is reminiscent of rock concerts from the 1980s. Consequently, the actors play songs between scenes, or rather, as scenes, as they are an integral part of the performance. They feel very much in place. With instruments coming down from the grid, they play surprisingly clean. Even Joy Divisions She's Lost Control passes and that sums up the core of the performance excellently. Is the choice of precisely Joy Division, whose singer Ian Curtis suicided, a finger pointing to the play's ending?

Penthesilea loses control and plunges her people into ruin. The same goes for Achilles, by the way. Their ruthless lust and love is so selfish that they sacrifice the well-being of their people and the course of the war to it. Here, Arbo is at her strongest. You feel the lust, it splashes off the stage. The scene in which Penthesilea and Achilles can finally have sex is a lustful squirming in a large vat of a slimy substance that refers not specifically to one kind of bodily fluid, but to all. Attractive and repulsive at the same time, a preview to the inevitable dramatic end.

Fluid gender roles

In the adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's play, Arbo and dramatist Bart van den Eynde choose to focus on gender roles. There is a male Amazon, Felix Schellekens as Meroë and a female Greek warrior, Eefje Paddenburg. Interesting, as this pits her against sister Ilke Paddenburg, who plays Penthesilea. The actors' body language is gender fluid. Jesse Mensah plays a beautiful Achilles, who is very 'in touch' is with his feminine sides, in the way Prince was. He even wears a see-through blouse that Prince could have worn that way. Ilke Paddenberg, on the other hand, stomps and screams and does not do feminine softness. In the process, she does sometimes over-shout herself. Her madness is always at 100%, with wide-open eyes and big gestures. I do miss some shades of grey in that.

Her madness leads to the murder of Achilles. Kissing and biting lie side by side, she reports. She devours him, literally. In an orgasmic scene full of blood and rose petals, Achilles is torn to pieces, Penthesilea is out of her mind. Once she realises what she has done, suicide is the only way out.

Marieke Heebink closes the play as she opened it: dignified and calm as a high priestess.

As mentioned, I sometimes missed some nuances in Penthesilea's character. And the narrative scenes were a bit dull at times. But what I found refreshing was that Arbo and van de Eynde put gender roles in a historical perspective through their choice of character. Penthesilea was a footnote in history almost three millennia ago, now she has the stage herself. The choice of the author, Heinrich von Kleist, who incidentally also committed a double suicide with his mistress in the early nineteenth century. And by placing it in more recent history with references to Prince and the 1980s, ultimately the decade of Boy George, Grace Jones and Leigh Bowery.

Gender has never been a strictly binary matter. Let's finally accept and embrace that, as here, on stage.

Seen: Penthesilea by ITA at the Holland Festival on 21 June. Still to see. Information.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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