Explicit, poetic and provocative, Jean René Lemoine’s powerful reworking of the Medea myth offers a surprisingly fresh and relevant take on such a well-worn story. Lemoine’s Medea is a woman difficult not only to like but even to pity – one who did terrible things to win her husband Jason and abased herself to keep him, a woman much-damaged long before she took her famous revenge. But, given the freedom to tell her own story, she emerges as far more than mere monster: she is a complex, dangerous woman who is quite aware of the depth of her own sins.
Director Neil Bartlett’s fluid translation is perfectly suited to the sinuous combination of fragility and power that François Testory brings to the role. Testory twists and contorts his dancer’s body as he speaks, sometimes in tightly reined fury, sometimes despair, sometimes resigned humiliation. He makes much use of his exquisite costuming (by the legendary designer Mr Pearl – most recently famed for making Dita Von Teese’s corsets). Adorned in lush fabrics as she is, the constriction of her dress and tottering sandals mark how Medea has been tamed and mewed up by her Westernisation, luxurious though her confinement may be. But wreathed in flowing shawls she evokes older, more elemental images, tying her to a mythical and biblical lineage of doomed and defiant women.
Because this Medea sees herself as part of a greater sisterhood – she regularly evokes the names of Iseult, Brunnhilde and Penthesilea, other women in legend – while also more than just an individual at all. She is both ancient and contemporary – her story starts rooted in myth, but married life with Jason becomes a scene from a modern reality show; a bored, rich wife lounging by the pool while her husband is somewhere else cheating on her.
Otherness is bestowed automatically by having the role played by a man, and much is made of Medea’s ‘exoticism’ – its allure and its perils. To be presented at court she must straighten her hair and lighten her face; her ‘native’ sexuality is first fetishized, then exploited, then rejected. In the end, for all her efforts to assimilate, she is still replaced by a more suitable bride: a pale, pretty blonde girl. (This does jar, slightly, coming from someone who looks as white as Testory – Lemoine, who has French-Haitian heritage, wrote the part originally for himself.)
But there is something undeniably striking in this idea of Medea – so often framed simply as ‘the woman scorned’ – as immigrant and exile, a walking condemnation of Western complacency in the world. Medea is not just a woman who is seduced then ignored, she is a country conquered then abandoned, mistreatment and neglect left to fester on a scale that is both personal and political. In such circumstances, the piece asks us, how can we be surprised by eventual rebellion, however bloody, brutal and even self-destructive it may be?
Medea, Written in Rage is on at The Place in London from 5 – 7 October. Click here for more details.