A Lament for Medea
PJM and Jorge Lopes Ramos
Para Active/Urban Dolls Project and Zecora Ura
Arcola Theatre Studio 2
Apologies for a very late review. None of my colleagues at BTG made this show last week - perhaps because they were warned they would have to sit through the whole piece with trousers rolled up and feet in a pool of water. That did make it sound like the more pretentious kind of what is increasingly labelled 'performance art.' At least it wasn't going to keep you up all night: Hotel Medea, an earlier joint show by these companies at the Arcola in January, began at midnight and went on until six in the morning. I didn't see it, but it did seem to keep the critics awake and gain some plaudits so I took the risk and fitted this further look at the Medea legend into my schedule as soon as possible.
I'm glad I did. It is very different from what seems to have Hotel Medea's gruelling six hours of orgiastic drumming and dancing, audience involvement and poignant nightmare. To start with, it lasts only three-quarters of an hour of minimalist concentration.
Medea was a sorceress princess who helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father and having fled with him and borne his children was then abandoned for another princess who brought a kingdom with her. Medea sent a poisoned garment as a gift to her replacement, killed her own children and flew off in a chariot drawn by dragons. This is not a retelling of her story, though it draws on elements of it and is full of reminders of the tragedy. Knowledge the legend is not a prerequisite and perhaps may produce a more closed response than that of those who come without it.
You take a longer route than usual to Studio 2 and, having removed shoes and socks in an anteroom, are ushered to a small space where a middle-aged servant is cutting up what looks like onions and offal. The last show I saw in the theatre upstairs was Thyestes, with its child-cooking, and a television programme about eating placentas perhaps coloured my interpretation of what this was, it might have meant no more than routine domesticity. Stopping her work, the woman takes each member of the audience, joining hands with them to lead them past a hanging curtain and into a dimly lit space where another woman, clad in black, guides them down a step or two and through a foot-deep tank of water to a specific place along a ledge that surrounds it.
The darkness and the water are disorienting. You are being led into some ritual space, somewhere like an underground Mithraic temple. Is that white figure in a wheelchair some kind of Sybil? There is plangent music: a four or five note phrase repeated on a keyboard. The musician (Nwando Ebizie) is on the ledge sitting next to me. The atmosphere is heavy, the senses becoming highly tuned. You are aware of things floating on and in the water: small Teddy Bears, plastic swords, little rubber animals and are those cooking bowls or soldiers helmets? The black clad figures sit with you. A member of the audience raises a spotted white cuddly toy out of the water on her feet. Darkness. A glimmer of light and the women in black (Lisa Lapidge, Becca Savory and Antigoni Spanou) stand and begin to speak like an ancient Greek chorus. The woman from outside is sitting on a chair in the water at the other end of the space. She is Medea's maid (Thelma Sharma). The woman in what could be a white wedding dress in the hospital wheel chair, her head bound in a black kerchief and given to hieratic gesture, is Medea (PJM).
In the sequences that follow, some of them in darkness or lit by candles or torch-lights on women's heads, the maid argues with Medea, so softly that at the other end of the room you can hardly hear her; the other women become militia accusing Medea of poisoning the princess, or a pack of interrogating paparazzi. Partly spoken, partly sung, sometimes wordlessly or in what could be ancient Persian a captivating soundscape is produced.
The maid appears to be applying make-up to Medea's face as she lies slumped in her wheelchair. Is she being made beautiful for a court appearance? No, the maid cuts and tears Medea's petticoat, pulls down her panties. When her mistress raises her head she shows off her bruises and blood trickles from her nose. Has husband Jason been beating her? The pressmen want an answer. What has happened to this princess? You can't help thinking of Diana and her butler.
This performance rarely makes things explicit. It is a poem in sound, darkness, light and language. Like Medea, it casts a spell. This is theatre magic - as in that long moment when a succession of matches are struck in darkness and then dropped into the water. Such simplicity and so effective. It is not work that answers questions or even poses them. Yes, it is quite self-consciously and unashamedly being 'artistic,' but this is art with a vivid theatricality. It is what you make of it.
What PJM and co-deviser/director Jorge Lopes Ramos are trying to say by it I do not know. Since it has been in development for two years there surely must be something - but I am happy just to have had the sensory and emotional experience. It is certainly worth getting your feet wet!
At the Arcola until 25th July 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton