Hit and Myth
Well there it goes. The Almeida’s epic, heroic Greeks season comes to an end. The story’s over, we’ve reached Ithaca. Everyone’s either dead, maimed or really pissed off at their parents. The cast of characters completes the journey to Elysium and, because this is theatre, Lethe will have her watery way and all will be forgotten.
Or maybe it won’t. Maybe, as long as these stories are refreshed and reinvigorated by the likes of Rob Icke and Rachel Cusk, they can never be forgotten. Sanctity, be gone: what the season has proven – perhaps above all – is the necessity of moving away from the sort of thinking that supposes ‘what Euripides really thought’. Instead, rip it all up. Give the writers and directors free rein. Make the plays important again, make them speak to us now.
If Barthes is right in saying that the purpose of myth is to empty history of reality, then perhaps one of the purposes of tragedy is to restore that sense of reality to myth. Tragedians took ancient myths and drew out certain aspects of the story, rewriting them for their own purposes, so that they would resonate with their contemporary audience. Sometimes that restoration of reality was an overt political message for a 5th century audience, especially an audience that had lived through years of war. Sometimes it was a more abiding reflection on the human condition. Either way, ancient Greeks grew up with these myths like we grow up with Disney: they are stories, they are archetypes, they are lessons.
But to us, now, the political contexts of the 5th century have become mythologised because of a lack of information. Ancient Athenians are as removed from us as any mythological heroes. Perseus and Pericles are uttered in the same breath, as if both existed. Almeida Greeks has made tragedy real. Sexy and slick, too, but each play and each event had a purpose and a voice that made them, individually and collectively, important.
It’s all Me-me-medea
What Rachel Cusk’s Medea does – more boldly and more brilliantly than so many other adaptations of tragedy – is to refill the myth of Medea with a reality that is recognisable, above all, to Cusk herself and, by extension, to us. Where Ben Power’s adaptation for the National last year nudged at the divorce drama narrative without fully committing, Cusk embraces and attacks it full force.
It’s been ripped out of its Greek context. The neverending branches of mythology that extend beyond Medea to her family, her husband and all their stories have been cut off. This is a Medea transplant.
So, the opening scene sees Medea’s moaning mother and downtrodden father. They are Middle England, while the chorus of gabbling mothers is Upper Middle England. “Shall mummy get you a babyccino?” coos one. Each is desperate to fit into the clique, but the only way to get beyond the insecurities of oneupwomanship is to concertedly focus their contempt onto an outsider: Medea.
In her Euripidean context, Medea is an exotic and dangerous foreigner. The play is set in Corinth, a city in Greece, but Medea is from Colchis – a wealthy kingdom on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, what is now Georgia. Also, Medea is a witch. Her otherness – as a foreigner, a sorceress and a woman – is what defines her. Cusk establishes that otherness by having her Medea be an ostracised outsider from the gaggle of coffee morning mothers. They scorn her for not conforming to their ways.
In Cusk’s adaptation, Medea is a writer (Cusk is a writer). Medea is going through a traumatic divorce (Cusk went through a traumatic divorce). Medea confronts with bitter candour the complexities of being a mother, the often unspoken – because unspeakable? – moments when motherly love falters, when selfishness prevails, when hatred consumes.
Medea – written by a man for a male audience within the daddy of all patriarchies – is a play that can benefit hugely from having a female writer translate it; translate not just the words, but the experiences, the hierarchies, the motivations of the characters. Australian Classicist and theatre maker Jane Griffiths wrote an article about the critical response to her adaptation of Antigone. Much of what she says is applicable to Cusk’s Medea, too.
“this type of translation is not a linear search for linguistic equivalence. It does not prioritise a seeming originary text. It does not see a clear progression from source to target. It does not even consider fidelity to the source important – because that source invariably negates the female experience.”
It’s been fascinating and gratifying to see the Almeida’s Greeks season shatter the notion of fidelity to a source text. And it’s frightening to see Cusk’s Jason shatter his marital fidelity.
Cusk completely takes control of the text, as she has her Medea take control of the story of her marriage. “You don’t own the story”, Medea shouts at her husband. But Medea does, and Cusk does, because she is the writer. She controls the way a story is told, and she partly controls its legacy. Medea also owns the story by being the title of the play. This is not the story of Jason, despite the damage done to him and by him; nor is it the story of the children, despite the extremity of their suffering.
By making Medea a writer, and by echoing the narrative of her own life, Cusk plays with the idea of fiction and reality. Why, for example, do we want to watch pain? Why gather together and see someone suffering? Is it better that that we watch fictional suffering, or autobiographical suffering? Is it better for Medea not to exist – for Cusk never to have written her – or for her to exist but then only to feel pain?
And factuality is a slippery thing: Medea’s account of her violence towards her children differs from Jason’s. In a play that is otherwise so grounded in reality by the 21st century’s standards, a supernatural messenger who appears ex machina is a brilliantly baffling contradiction. She represents the grey area, by throwing back at the audience the assumption that what we are seeing is truth based on Cusk’s own life. However much it looks like autobiography – Cusk’s or Medea’s – here is a reminder that, no, this is fiction and in fiction a writer can do whatever she wants. Introduce a supernatural element, change the ending.
Cusk’s Medea is motivated by powerlessness. She feels ineffectual, famous for her divorce rather than renowned for her writing skill. The ambiguous act of violence towards the children is the way that she exerts her power, and has an effect in the world. Griffiths again:
“the new female aesthetic being explored by contemporary feminist theatre makers is our ability and right to address difficult political issues through women’s experience – warts and all. To put ‘difficult’ women on stage, without translation.”
By placing her own importance above the importance of her children, Medea abides by her own maxim that it is “better to be nobody to anybody”. This is completely at odds with what society expects of mothers: they are expected to be devoted to their children at all costs. Locked in vicious shouting matches over the phone, Jason repeatedly tries to convince Medea to soften her anger. And Medea is horrible, she is inordinately angry, she is unsympathetic. But her choice is between allowing herself to feel the way she feels, or being silenced by her ex husband – by a man.
There is no overt physical violence here. Though every ferocious, shattering scene from Kate Fleetwood threatens to boil over into punches, in fact all the violence is played out in words. These words wound and seethe, they bruise far more than any physical fight. And they lead to a reworked and ambiguous climax. Medea only thinks she has killed her children, as she shovels dirt into a grave-like fissure in the stage. But what’s in her fulminant mind jars with Jason’s account that, broken by the strain of their parents’ divorce, the children attempted suicide. They were not stabbed, they did not ride bloodied in their mother’s arms in the chariot of Helios. They sought solace in that most modern of solutions: a handful of pills.
And that’s how the season ends. A little bit of hope that the children may survive, a final sphragis by Rupert Goold and the Almeida that doesn’t fully erase, but instead overwrites the names of the ancient authors on these tragic texts. Like a palimpsest, Almeida Greeks is a modern manuscript that proclaims, reclaims and renews the Ancient Greek words of the tragedians, whose traces are faintly visible beneath.