Euripides in a new translation by Stella Duffy
Not for the first time, director Phil Wilmott has chosen to give a Greek tragedy in the Scoop arena a modern staging. Stella Duffy's new version is very contemporary in its language and it seems natural that these royals behave like modern politicians, and use their children as part of their PR and as pawns in their private bargaining.
In stark contrast to the light-hearted treatment of the early part of the story of Jason and Medea in Jason and the Argonauts, the family show with which this production has been paired for this summer's Scoop free theatre season, this is a bleak and bloody story of self interest and revenge.
Jason, hero of many adventures, is dumping the woman who helped him gain his greatest triumph at the cost of her own family, to marry a new princess and a future crown. She has not hidden her fury or her threats and now she and her children face expulsion.
It is presented here as though to a gathering of press and television journalists, notebooks in hand and microphones and cameras at the ready - but whatever it may have to tell us about rights and wrongs this is not a political story and if a pair of estranged celebrities are each trying to get the public on their side in the modern world, they would certainly be more careful about what is getting reported.
When, as a schoolboy, I first came across the play I found it immensely gripping and, perhaps because (it was an all-boy school) I was playing Medea I was totally on her side, though horrified when I discovered what she went on to do. It's powerful stuff, even in that old Gilbert Murray version, and the audience I saw it with in the Scoop were held by it. However, I've seen it in several different versions and know what's coming so, instead of being caught up in the action, I found myself too often questioning the way it is presented.
After a formal press conference introducing Jason and his new princess, the journos stay around, sometimes crowding in to get a close up but often drifting away because nothing is happening of interest to them. If this is meant to suggest public and private time it simply doesn't work, the difference is too blurred. No intelligent person and certainly no media-canny celebrity is going to blurt things out the way this Medea does. She's not on Big Brother; in her smart black dress she very much the sophisticate. Her planned revenge is a shared confidence; only if we see her losing her marbles - and that is not suggested - would she blab all this for public consumption.
Euripides' chorus are local women, sympathetic to another woman being abused by her feller. An audience in ancient Athens would have had its own ideas about her status and her rights - she was a foreign barbarian, a concubine in their eyes, not a wife, and they would have known a back story of frightening actions. Jason and she are in flight from another atrocity she has committed, though it too was intended to help him. None of that is fore-knowledge for a modern audience, not would it fit our mores. That's not an argument against modern dress, which could be interpreted as being timeless as much as being contemporary, but the media behave like the media - not like a group of other women who understand abuse and the plight of refugees!
Would a journo really not report what Medea is telling them to the authorities? Would they collude with the assassination of their royals? Such problems blocked much of my response to the performances of Siobhan O'Kelly as Medea and Joe Frederick as Jason. It probably didn't help that I had just seen them being charming in Jason and the Argonauts. In this play they are older and desperate. They play them as still too much the jeunesse dorée. I felt this Medea was more likely to be pushing for massive alimony than bloody vengeance. Only when she discovers that she is winning ground but realises it is too late to reverse her scheme does she become a tragic figure, and then she is left to hover in the background or pop awkwardly in and out of a narrow opening - very unhelpful for the actress..
This is a production that lacks stillness, which would help concentrate things on the text. Ursula Mohan as Medea's old nurse and Chris Hogben as a sort of trainer/tutor to her children are lucky enough to be allowed it when they report their horrors as the play draws to its end: it is then that this production begins to chill the soul.
Thursdays - Sundays until 6th September 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton