Features Published 13 October 2015

Medea: A Question of Agency

Diana Damian presents an alternative response to Rachel Cusk's Medea at the Almeida Theatre, the concluding part of their Greeks season.
Diana Damian Martin

By now, you will probably have heard plenty about Rachel Cusk’s version of Euripides’ Medea the Almeida, under Rupert Goold’s direction. You will have heard that it is fiercely committed to exploring the gender politics of divorce; that it is a dramatisation that displaces morality for a more sophisticated debate on resilience, psychology and female subjectivity; and that in focusing on marriage over motherhood, Medea provides a different perspective on the infamous child murder scene of the play. When speaking about her own adaptation for The Telegraph, Cusk underlines the ways in which the play presents a woman better protected ‘by conventional passivity than by independence and autonomy.’ In other words, to Cusk, this recontextualisation of the murder scene proposes a way of conceiving a contemporary resistance to patriarchy in the guise of bourgeois, institutional domesticity.

Cusk’s adaptation keeps us in an intimate relationship with Medea, toying with the familiar narratives of divorce. Although motherhood becomes part of the debate, it’s always contextualised by a focus on parental responsibility and conflict. What’s exciting is the way in which narrative is displaced in favour of different fragments that present an intimately female subjectivity in dialogue with the institutional structures of family life and its erosion. Here, there is no clear moral compass; in Medea, Cusk observes a process in which the personal becomes public, and the public comes under different forms of scrutiny. Cusk’s adaptation places clear emphasis on the psychological elements of trauma, whilst attempting to make visible a feminist sensibility without homogenising the experience of divorce. Medea’s story is personal and exceptional, but also resonates with the darker elements of Euripides’ work.

In shifting the emphasis away from the murder of the two children, the production also manages to engage the Ancient drama in a contemporary conversation. At the same time, this provides a productive tension of register, between the transgression and catharsis of Medea, stripped of its male authorship in the hands of a novelist new to theatre, and the erosion of subjectivity and empowerment that come with the process of divorce in its representation. This is a tragedy, but one that poses questions to the ways in which it speaks to contemporary sensibilities. So what is reworked in content is also reflected in form.

That being said, the stylisation that occurs throughout the production sits uneasily with its dramaturgical coherence. Gradually, the aesthetics shift from the contemporary domestic to the pictorially dramatic landscape that ultimately frames the stage; we leave the kitchen and the living room for a more representational space, where gods and people meet, where the language of the everyday begins to bleed with classical dramatic poetics. It is the figure of the double, both male and female, that rounds up the production, providing a set of moral compasses framing the events that have been unfolding in front of us.

For all its sophistication, this engagement with formal stylisation falls flat with the Chorus – a series of judgmental mothers commenting on the unfolding events with a cold normativity, a cruel and pedantic distance. Despite its intentions, the Chorus ends up as a trivialised representation of these middle class, married and mundane women casting their judgmental eye on Medea. The power of contagion that dominates much of the production dissipates in their presence.

Medea touches on material which is autobiographical, and at times as a result, it falls into the trap of overtly underlining (and undermining) the dramatic. At the same time, the poetics of the production present a beautifully crafted examination of female characterisation, of the role of tragedy in contemporary times, and of the questions raised by multiple forms of authorship – from Euripides to Cusk.

So much of Euripides’ Medea uses the body as a site of violence, and Cusk’s adaptation presents this with such clarity. Despite the occasional fictioning that often comes with a novelist tackling theatre for the first time, her Medea tells the story of a woman’s battle with the institutions of marriage and divorce, of the ways in which trauma becomes a contemporary contagion, and of the forces which act on our minds, of the ways in which bodies can curb female subjectivity and agency.

Tim Bano’s review of Medea

Image: Marc Brenner

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.