Mike Bartlett’s new version of Euripides’ infanticide tragedy gleams with his usual playful but earnest critique of contemporary society, delivering a drama that is moving, though darkly humorous throughout, and provocatively close to kitsch.
Medea is struggling to cope shortly after being left by her husband for the just-adult daughter of their landlord. Clad in slumber-wear she spends her days in the two-storey house that they once shared, the sole responsible for her early-teenage son Tom, who has retreated into a private world of perpetual video-gaming and silence. When the landlord hears that Medea, fuelled by a bitterness that it is not hard to sympathise with, has insulted his sensitive young daughter in the street he issues a final eviction notice and our heroine is left potentially homeless the night before Jason’s wedding. Unsure of who will have custody of Tom, of how or where to go, Medea burns with deliciously diabolical spite until a chance encounter with another neighbour, Andrew, who, in an unexpected twist of fate, offers her his holiday home abroad in return for a very unorthodox favour. But, as the audience are all too aware, the die has already been cast and ultimately the mother is implicated in the murder of the young bride and her father, leading to the threat of incarceration.
Bartlett’s Medea is, on one level, a woman trapped in the ‘Wisteria Lane’ of cult TV series Desperate Housewives and the music placed between certain scenes clearly alludes to this. All aspects of the staging are highly effective in creating a strong sense of the boundaries between private, public and internal-subjective spheres and how these might limit communication, be violated or colour our perception of exterior reality. The giant photographic print used to represent the house’s facade, which then repeats and continues off-stage on either side to imply identical neighbouring houses, contextualises Medea’s sense of entrapment and search for personal recognition within a Warholian suburbia of repetitious outward appearance. Despite her education Medea feels powerless against an anti-feminist gender politics that she, in her depressive state, can’t help but see everywhere (‘noone likes clever women’, ‘women…whatever we do its ”irrational”’), and which Jason, in his frustration, directly reinforces (‘sometimes I hate women’). Characterisation of Pam, the key-waving, mobile-nattering, city equivalent of Jason, creates important humour as well as social critique, and Bartlett’s use of the construction worker as the replacement ‘chorus’ is highly entertaining. Characters like Pam or Jason, Medea tells her son, are people who demonstrate a preference for ‘Power’ over ‘Intelligence’; but Bartlett problematizes this promising insight into contemporary culture by revealing its speaker to be judgemental, snobbish, a mild mythomaniac.
The pop culture based ironies of the piece work very well throughout most of the play, and despite our hardened sense of postmodern cynicism the ending succeeds in provoking some moral outrage. Medea, who has been played very naturalistically throughout, is plunged into absurd theatricality for the final scene of the tragedy. This shouldn’t be a problem, and in fact adds aesthetic vitality to the work, but the lines that this supposedly deep and intelligent woman utters, dead child in arms, fail to convince us and, combined with the melodrama of the set, ultimately leave us with a sense of gross insincerity: ‘[he will always be remembered for] the Maths test… for coming second in the egg and spoon race…’. Could this be Bartlett’s strategy for giving another, final, turn to a deconstruction of gender expectations?