Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Medea

Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks
Gate Theatre in association with Belvoir, Sydney
Gate Theatre

Bobby Smalldridge as Jasper and Keir Edkins-O'Brien as Leon Credit: Ikin Yum
Emma Beattie as Medea Credit: Ikin Yum

Medea you note after Euripides, and a long way after. This isn’t a new version of the classic ancient Greek play but an entirely new, very modern one that comes to the story from a very different angle: that of the children.

Two little boys are lying on the floor in their untidy bedroom, its floor littered with plastic projectiles fired from their pneumatic guns. They could be dead: this could be beginning at the end of the story: for those in the audience who know Medea’s story it is an image than will remind them of how that concludes.

They’re not dead, it is all part of their game and this play superficially presents two children at play and their sibling tensions. Anyone with a brother or sister will recognize how well the writing captures the relationship. The older boy is a little bit bossy and controlling, but later revealing a caring affection for his little brother.

Bobby Smalldridge and Keir Edkins-O’Brien (who share the roles with Bill Keogh and Samuel Menhinick) deliver amazingly natural performances under Anne-Louise Sarks’s direction and sustain them, on stage through all of its more than an hour of playing time.

At one point, they hear their parents rowing somewhere else in the house. It is only when one of them wants to go for a pee (there’s an inevitable “accident” later) that they realise they’ve been locked in. With a glass, they try to hear what is said and then talk about their parents.

The bored youngest wants a story so tells his own family saga to his brother’s goldfish. Yes, it's a contrivance to fill in the background of Jason, the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts but it feels entirely natural.

It is a little bit like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead offering the offstage story, as it were, of a familiar tragedy and, like that play, it is full of humour though with a terrible knowledge of what is going on beyond that door and after.

At last, the door is unlocked and Medea enters, red-eyed and with smudged mascara. She’s obviously very upset but it's the loving mother that Emma Beattie shows us, putting a brave face on it as she tells her children that they are going to live with their father and his new friend.

She brings in a present, wrapped up with red ribbon, and tells them it’s their gift to dad’s new lady. The boys think she’s actually quite nice and younger and prettier than their mum is. Then they feel disloyal for thinking that, but don’t seem unduly perturbed by the prospect of having a new home without mum.

Mum comes back again saying the present was a success and when they ask for dad tells them he will be here soon to take them to their new home. First, though, they must rest and she has a special drink for them. The eldest wraps one of his dad’s woollies around him, symbol, or perhaps in reality; the Golden Fleece that Medea sacrificed so much to get for him.

For these children, there are no gods to call on, no crowns to be won along with new marriage. Their knowledge and horizons are limited to an immediate family context, caught up in their make-believe game world and trusting adults to know best. There is just a hint of awareness but for them you still get up after “Bang-bang! I’m dead!” For them there is no bloody slaughter, no chariot from the skies, no friendly ruler in Athens but we only share their experience. What happens after they are dead and beyond that door?

These things could still happen in the world of the grown-ups, but this isn’t quite a parallel to the ancient version. It could still be a revenge story, but that isn’t what we see through child-eyes. It is still a tragedy, expressively moving in its gentleness, for this is a woman who cannot bear the idea of her children being taken away from her.

You get a sense that she won’t be escaping somewhere but accompanying them on their journey, whatever that may be. This is a Medea with a universality for our own time.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton