Margaret Atwood discusses The Penelopiad with Phyllida Lloyd

Margaret Atwood makes her acting debut tonight in her update of the Odyssey - told from the viewpoint of Odysseus's wife. She and Phyllida Lloyd explain why

Novelist Margaret Atwood and Phyllida Lloyd first met in 2002, at the premiere of the opera of Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, directed by Lloyd. Now they have collaborated on a staged reading of Atwood's latest book, The Penelopiad, a reinterpretation of the Odyssey told by Odysseus's wife Penelope and her 12 maids (who were hanged by Odysseus on his return) from the underworld where they have languished for centuries. Atwood is to play the part of Penelope.

Margaret Atwood Phyllida and I first talked about staging The Penelopiad last fall, when she was in Toronto directing The Handmaid's Tale, the opera. I had just finished writing The Penelopiad and Phyllida said she'd like to read it. We agreed it had a theatrical dimension, and when I was next in England we got together to talk it over. Various schemes were suggested, and finally we decided to do this staged reading. It's not a fully fledged performance and it's been done on a shoestring. And I'm playing the part of Penelope because I'm cheap - in fact, I'm free.

Phyllida Lloyd I think we are always looking for an escape from the well-made play. This is not a play. It's not really even a musical. It's a very unexpected shape, and the venue - St James's, Piccadilly, a beautiful Wren church - is another unexpected shape. There's no stage: we've got to build it and create the underworld in a day. It's a journey, an Odyssey, an adventure.

MA [The Penelopiad] is dipping a toe in the theatrical waters out of which it came in the first place. Penelope's opening speech presupposes an audience. She is speaking from the world of the dead to the world of the living. She wants to tell "you" that she's not what people thought, that other people had told stories about her, but now she is down in the underworld she doesn't care about social convention, she's going to tell her own story. She lives or dies depending upon which version of the myth you are reading or listening to. But Penelope doesn't get as much airtime as Clytemnestra or Helen of Troy because she was not a tragic figure in the same sense. She didn't kill anybody as such, and she was not killed herself. Where Helen was very tall and extremely beautiful, Penelope was short and people emphasised her intelligence because she obviously wasn't as beautiful. By the time the suitors got around to her she was quite old for those times, so you know they were after the loot. I'm quite old myself, so I'm not at all worried about playing her. I haven't seen yet what the maids are doing; I don't know what Phyllida has cooked up for them.

PL There's something very potent about the idea of the 12 hanged maids - their parts will be performed by three actresses, who all sing beautifully, and are all musicians too. They are very big Margaret Atwood fans. We rehearsed today, and I had to keep reminding them that they looked at this empty chair [where Atwood, as Penelope, will be sitting] with reverence and awe, and that they've got to think differently. "She's Penelope, she's enslaved you. You've got to find more rage and menace here." So we are going to have to have a rapid acclimatisation. The maids have to play all the other characters as well - Odysseus, Helen of Troy, Penelope's mother ...

MA The mother of Penelope is a naiad [a water nymph], and we have yet to see, or at least I have yet to see, what the costume will be.

PL I've got to go shopping for some of the costumes in Berwick Street market. We are trying to be a bit emblematic, not too literal.

MA The book is in essence theatrical. It's a lot like the structure of a Greek tragedy, in that the central characters' stories are told in quite long monologues, then the chorus comment on the action. The book has the chorus line; the 12 women were hanged - pretty maids all in a row - with their feet twitching, which brings to mind the chorus line, except with a different kind of twitching feet. The singing and dancing in the court of Odysseus and Penelope would have been performed by slaves. Then the guests would be allowed to help themselves to the maids - they were entertainment, servants and sex toys all in one. Some of their numbers are written as songs, some dance numbers, some chanting.

PL For a ladies' ensemble, it is a dream theatrical project. You can show off your rap, your tap, your opera, your madrigal, your choral speaking. Women generally make up 50% of the audience, but they are seldom represented on stage to that degree.

MA It's surprising how many women there are in the Odyssey and they all help Odysseus, which is why I made him so charming. He's the kind of guy women like - he has a lovely voice, he takes an interest in them, he understands human nature. That's why he's so persuasive: he doesn't get his way by force, he's not a thug. He was fun to be around. That's why Penelope is sad he's not there. He's helped by women at every turn: by Helen in The Iliad, and by all the goddesses he meets along the way in the Odyssey. And then there's Penelope holding the fort while he's away. That's the kind of guy he was.

PL The National Theatre Studio has been very supportive of this project, and I think is keen to help us develop it in the future. We have many journeys to go on this. This is just the first.

MA We've been invited to put it on at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival next year. I've already said yes. But it's probably going to be an unrepeatable event, because we might not be able to get the same maids.

PL Maybe we will have more maids by then. Maybe we will have more each time we appear, until we reach the full 12.

MA Whatever they do, people are going to love it, because everybody understands that it's not a West End show and that it involves one amateur performer - me. The maidens will look great no matter what they do, because they are going to look better than me.

PL I hope to turn it into a fully fledged production eventually. For me, it may be a question of trying not to squeeze it into a genre that impresarios recognise as something that makes them feel safe. It's the very unstable nature of the work that I think could be its power. It's a question of whether we will ever be able to do it without Margaret Atwood as Penelope.

· Phyllida Lloyd and Margaret Atwood were in conversation with Lisa Allardice. Atwood's The Penelopiad is published by Canongate. The staged reading, directed by Lloyd, will be performed at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London W1, tonight. Details: 0870 990 1299.

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