“Medea” by Euripides (adapted by Mike Bartlett)

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 13th November 2012

This piece covers only my initial thoughts on the production. I’m writing a 3000-word essay for December on how Bartlett’s version reacts to the original and Greek tragedy in general, and that’ll go into more detail. I’ll see if I can make it available after writing it.

One of the main criticisms levelled at placing classic texts in modern settings is that the language seems anachronistic and allusions to weapons (daggers, swords etc) end up making little sense when the protagonists are wielding iPhones and laptops. In Headlong’s new production of Medea, however, this problem is solved by adapter/director Mike Bartlett, who makes Euripides’ original completely his own, introducing themes of depression, parenthood and twenty-first century gender politics. Under his direction, the play blends the best parts of both contemporary theatre and Greek tragedy, and though the final few moments are a little disappointing, there are some powerful moments throughout which bring to light a number of issues.

Strikingly, though Bartlett has basically rewritten the play himself, utilising his trademark quick-fire dialogue and hyper-aware modernist discussions, he remains alarmingly faithful to the structure and narrative thrust of Euripides’ original. Looking through an old translation, the scenes follow the same events and the tone of each is constant. Even more impressive, though (on the whole) the long speeches of the Greek version have been done away with, in certain scenes (specifically the first Jason/Medea scene) the power balance mirrors who’s talking in Euripides’ text. The effect, therefore, is that the grand Greek tragedy is always heard whispering beneath the surface.

Bartlett doesn’t shy away from asking similar questions to Euripides. The play is still about alienation, motherhood and fate, and each step of the way every one of these themes is questioned, interrogated and analysed with the same rigourousness of Euripides. In a post-Freudian era, however, the text shows itself to be even richer, as Bartlett attempts to understand some of the psychologies of these characters. They are still, broadly, the archetypes of the original, but he also slides in some thoughts about the causes and effects of depression and how modern ‘conveniences’ can have a negative impact on our social life.

The design, by Ruari Murchison, does something which is not possible in Medea’s original context. In it, we see a nondescript suburban house, complete with Ikea furniture and primary colours, and which can be opened and closed as necessary like a giant doll’s house. Some events happen within it and others outside, watched by the local builder. Whereas Euripides’ play was about the public consequences of private events, then, we see these more secretive moments occur and recognise the shift between Medea’s public and private personas.

There’s also some impressive work by lighting designer Johanna Town, who, alarmingly, actually brightens the stage as the action progresses; in one of the final scenes, the entire house is lit in bright white light, as clarity exists for the first time within Medea’s mind. Tom Mills’ composition is also extraordinary, at times taking filmic, thriller-type turns and at others using simple melodic motifs to highlight shifts in focus or finalised decisions.

The best thing about this production, however, is the performance given by Rachel Stirling in the title role, who manages to capture both the hugely tragic potential of this character and Bartlett’s depiction of twenty-first century womanhood. She is just as witty and fiery as Euripides’ original, and no attempt is made to shy away from her witch-like qualities. The whole show rests on this performance, and is successful because of it. Next to Stirling’s commanding portrayal, the rest of the cast look even more like the broad archetypes they are, with Sarah, Pam and the Workman (Lu Corfield, Amelia Lowdell & Paul Brendan) acting as a cross between the nurse, tutor and choric characters. Adam Levy’s Jason carefully walks the line between normal, charming father and complete and utter wanker. His scenes with Stirling are the best in the piece.

More than all this, however, Bartlett’s production demonstrates that Greek tragedy is possible in 2012, and that though we’ve moved to a more ‘enlightened’, rational sensibility, these events and stories are still just as moving as they ever were. The ‘perpetrators’ of these events may longer be the gods, but Headlong contest that similar fatalistic forces – like the state and society in general – are to blame for decisions such as the one to kill one’s own son (more on this later in follow-up essay).

This debate comes to head in the final moments when (*Spoiler alert*) Medea stands on the roof of her burning house (a nice nod to the vertical axis employed in Greek amphitheatres), shouting to God and asking him show himself, her dead and bloodied son lying next to her. In print, this scene is chilling, but something about the projected flames and over-elaborate set-change means these five minutes run the risk of seeming farcical. I wonder whether a similar effect could be achieved with less fuss; Bartlett’s words do the work for him, and by adding this parerphernalia his compelling argument, which has been so powerful in the previous ninety minutes, is lost.

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