“Are you feeling got at yet?” Judy asked me in the interval. No I wasn’t, and that fact might say something important. But let’s start at the beginning. When I arrived Charlie told me I would either love this or hate this. This augured ill, since generally that kind of recommendation means I’ll hate it, but actually I did love it. Medea is a great night out, with a smashing score, impressive acting, and an outstanding production design.
Unfortunately because I had a review ticket I was obliged to think about it, and then put my name to some of those thoughts. That obligation is both the biggest gift and curse of reviewing – at its best it leads to heightened attentiveness, and can help tease out subtler insights not immediately apparent. Theatre is a carefully engineered endeavour, and thinking deeply is sometimes the only way to access all the good things going on beneath the surface. This is especially so since its lack of durability normally means we encounter it once and have only our memories to interrogate. Of course, one needn’t be a reviewer to reflect deeply on a play, but the professional obligation for someone like me is like being frog-marched to the gym. For all the occasional kicking and screaming, you comply and are much better for it.
On the other hand, the habit often leads to over-thinking. This is why much modern theatre-writing is humourless, self-important, and obsessed with the trivia of identity politics. There is always something to get worked up about if you look for it. No single production can hope to please everyone and often the people it displeases the most tend to be the ones reviewing it. This is no coincidence.
A second pitfall is the challenge of how to enjoy a superficially pleasing piece of work that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. To complain rightly provokes eyerolls from those capable of the more accessible, immediate pleasure. It is like objecting that you tickling me was going for an easy laugh. Of course it was, it is hard to tickle anyone satirically. However the door for a sustained critical response is ajar as soon a production makes serious claims for itself. I am perpetually surprised that pantomime doesn’t come in for more of a kicking. Its ability to get away with woeful gender and even crasser racial politics is, I believe, wholly down to its upfront disingenuous positioning as silly-but-fun family escapism. The minute you introduce the Widow Twankee as a searing exploration of male privilege in the domestic realm, you’re much more likely to get what’s coming.
George Mann’s Medea is really the story of modern-day Maddy. Her husband’s infidelity has uncanny symmetries with events described in Euripedes’ classic drama, the action rocking between ancient Corinth and the present-day. A bit like the Wizard of Oz except with fewer Munchkins and more murdered children. This basic conceit is, for the most part, very successful. The rather emphatic script couldn’t be accused of subtlety but the presentation of the majority of the text as soulful, a cappella song pushes this closer towards the aesthetic conventions of opera where the surface beauty determines the pleasure, not the deeper layers of plot.
This is just as well as the closer the events of the present parallel the Ancient myth, the more credibility is strained. Medea has this in common with just about every recasting of classic plots into the modern world: because narrative choices of earlier works depend on the restrictions imposed by the characters’ societal situation, these cannot be transplanted to another place and time without a struggle. The most successful adaptations are often set in high schools (one thinks of Clueless or Ten Things I Hate About You) where the historical emphasis on social status, public shame, and seemingly binary options, fits teenage melodrama all too well.
Medea has been recast as a feminist text because Medea herself can be seen as a function of a highly repressive society. As with Toni Morrison’s Beloved the murders are explicable in terms of an environment where cruelty and insanity are so completely inscribed in the social structure, that the murder of one’s children can almost come to be regarded as an act of sanity. However, whatever we may find wanting in present-day England to compare it to Ancient Greece in respect of the legal freedoms and protections of women is ludicrous. In order to care about Maddy’s fate, we need to accept the truth of her tragedy: a house-wife who shops at Waitrose is left by her husband and is obliged to get a job. That’s a bummer, no doubt, but it doesn’t convincingly justify what threatens to follow.
Maddy’s husband, Jack, is revealed as such an unpleasant misogynist that we wonder why a self-respecting, highly intelligent person like Maddy would wait for him to leave her. The reason I couldn’t feel got at, to return to Judy’s point, is that the sexism was so blatant as to implicate nobody but the individual spouting it. Had the Maddy/Medea parallels been less literal, more playful, the contemporary plot could have followed the logic of its characters far more effectively, and some of the bolder feminist messages would have found their target.
However, the surface effects of this are so impressive that as with a Mozart opera, or a Shakespeare comedy, why obsess about the plot? The acting is especially outstanding. Akiya Henry as Maddy and Medea has formidable demands made on her. Huge melodramatic set-pieces immediately follow sassy banter with friends, much of which is set to a complex musical score. Yet as brilliantly as Henry manages this, it’s the quiet moments that linger in the memory: for Medea to inveigle her way back into Jason’s trust, she must grin and bear merciless belittlement and unflattering comparisons to her rival – Henry’s smile and icy glare magnificently convey a whole world of righteous fury. Like the rest of the superb ensemble cast, she is also unafraid to find comedy in the darkest of scenes.
The primary benefit of the dual plotlines is that we genuinely have no idea how the modern-day story will end. I found the eventual punchline slightly underwhelming, but the passage towards it was unbearably tense. Shizuka Hariu’s striking set design, recalling the eerie neoclassicism of Giorgio de Chirico, built an ever-expanding tower of stairs, Henry’s ascent of which was thrillingly stressful.
In all, here is a superbly executed concept by a blisteringly talented group. Medea’s tragic hamartia is a failure to never give all the heart. Yeats notwithstanding, to enjoy this production one is perhaps better off never giving all of the mind.
Medea is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 27th May 2017. Click here for more details.