Yellow Earth Theatre
Greenwich Theatre and touring
Sung Rno has called one of his leading characters M and given her a husband called Jason and anyone who knows the legend of Medea will recognize elements of that story here, centrally that it is about a woman transplanted to a foreign culture and increasingly alienated from her male partner who finds it easier to integrate. This M is a Korean transplanted to the United States. She doesn't have the magic powers of her the original Colchian Princess and her motivation seems less Medea's sexual passion for a foreign adventurer than a wish to escape her family for a dream of life in America and Jason, though a stranger, seems also to be Korean.
Rno doesn't try to match the story - and there's no reason why he should. Indeed, I felt he tried to find too many parallels. Where legendary Jason has to kill a dragon to claim the Golden Fleece and Medea to kill the brother who would prevent their escape here M kills her brother to steal the family Chi and makes off with some kind of talisman that presumably represents it. Is there something that matches this in Korean tradition? I can see that losing a daughter would damage the strength inherent in a family but what makes fratricide necessary? The subsequent plot doesn't need it for there are quite enough traumas going on in her life to justify scenes with a psychiatrist to help her restore her confidence and sense of self without that.
Jason has a US patron, a movie producer who owes his life to Jason's father and wants to make him a movie star, and the media pair him with his co-star, the equivalent of the legend's king of Corinth's daughter. It is a little ambiguous as to whether this plot line follows through to the tragic ending of Euripides's telling, but there have been many other versions of the story. It is not as a modern version of Medea that this play makes its impact but in the way in which it presents the basic problems of relationships in marriage and the family and of the conflicting values and expectations of different cultures, of how one can exploit the other and along the way it throws in many basinfuls of hilarious satire.
In addition to the psychiatrist who is paid for being an audience, it pokes fun at patronising ethnic television and the copycat world of cinema. Jason stars in a movie musical called Mr Phnom Penh complete with Miss Saigon helicopters and hit songs pinched from shows from Oklahoma and West Side to Phantom and a co-star who seems to be made up of digital particles. There are reminders of the prevalence of video games, of US gun-culture, of academic gobbledy-gook - in fact it probably takes on too much, there is even a send up of self-consciously poetic drama with a 'Wavemaker' and a couple of his acolytes who at one point look like becoming a kind of 'chorus to this history.'
There is so much going on that it is danger of becoming too fragmented but it is great fun and Jonathan Man's production deftly keeps it moving on the elegant set it shares with Boom, with which it plays in repertoire at Greenwich.
It is played by a strong cast with Louise Mai Newberry as M and Jonathan Chan-Pensley as Jason. The production gives wonderful opportunities for putting acting versatility on display: Ashley Alymann ranges from prim psychiatrist to pompous scientist, flowery Wavemaker and a the huge ego of the film producer while, as well as playing M and Jason's son and the digitalised Marilyn Part 2, Jay Oliver Yip and Tina Chiang are a comic triumph as quick quipping and totally non PC television hosts.
I think it would be a better play if it concentrated on its own concerns and stopped trying to reflect the incidents of the ancient drama - after all, how many in the audience will actually make the connection and, even if they do, does it add anything? It might be even more invigorating and entertaining.
Ended at Greenwich; coming to Live Theatre, Newcastle; Gulbenkian Theatre, Kent; Contact, Manchester and Riverside Studios.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton