Hey kids – mum here – remember last month when we went to see Jason and the Argonauts at the Unicorn, the one that played out like a computer game, with Hera competing to transform a zero into a hero and Zeus throwing monsters and obstacles in her way? There was something I didn’t want to talk to you about at the end of that show: a clang of disquiet that I knew to be a cliffhanger, a warning of what lies ahead for Jason and Medea. You liked those characters: Jason all galumphish, getting gooey at the knees every time he looked at Medea; her brittle and cross but determined to evade her father and make herself a freedom. Why tell you of the arguments ahead, the separation, how Jason would find someone else to be with – someone more conventional, less witchy and weird – why tell you that Medea…
I’ve given you so many Greek tales to read, encouraged you to absorb these myths alongside Norse legends, tales of Hindu gods, an abbreviated Bible – but not Medea. You’ve encountered murder, sorcery, deception, estrangement, all the elements of the Medea story, but not Medea. Maybe there’s a similar chariness going on at the Unicorn, because you don’t meet Medea there, either. She’s a name, an idea, something of a hero. At least, a hero in her daughter’s eyes. Society won’t go so far as to declare her that.
Is this the discomfort about Medea: not what she does, but what she embodies? Woman scorned, or woman over-reacting to her husband’s callous pragmatism, or hysterical woman: any of those ancient tropes that have killed more women than Medea killed children? Oh, sorry, that slipped out. Yes, she kills her children. I don’t know what I can say to you about that.
The children in My Mother Medea are teenagers already, and furious. It’s set in a grey, grim classroom – the chairs are orange plastic but that doesn’t make the general effect any brighter – in the umpteenth school that Eriopis and Polyxenos have been to since leaving Greece. And the preoccupying question of the text (by Holger Schober, in a translation by David Tushingham) isn’t how or why Medea might have killed these two young people, her own children, but how it’s possible for them to live: as refugees, as foreigners, as other; as male and female in the shadow of grimly gendered parents, father lauded and mother unappreciated. Thinking over it, I’m not sure what makes me feel more sorry for Eriopis: the fact that she got butchered, or that her father, on seeing her sword-fighting, looked forward to the day when she could “move that fast in the kitchen”.
I’m not yet, I hope, at the stage of mothering where the scales fall from your eyes. Before they do I want to read up on psychoanalyst David Winnicott’s theory of the “good enough” mother? It’s a key strand in Alison Bechdel’s book Are You My Mother?, a dense and involving autobiography of growing up with a mother who keeps her distance, withholding hugs and verbal affection, yet demands perfection. The “good enough” mother, by contrast, is one who holds the space of the child’s emotional development, and is prepared to absorb the child’s disillusionment, particularly on discovering that neither their parents nor they are omnipotent. Medea is categorically not a good enough mother. Nor is Jason a good enough father, but who talks about him? Polyxenos does, with the starry-eyed pride of the child rapt by illusion. In fact, Polyxenos has little criticism for any of the founding fathers: Greece, he proclaims, is (was?) a place of learning, philosophy, science, mathematics. No mention of the profound flaws of ancient Greek society, the inequality of which the misogyny Eriopis exposes is just one strand.
In that sense, the Medea of this adaptation gets off lightly, because Schober is less concerned with the violence of the mother than the violence of society, which is constant and inescapable. It seeps into the siblings’ relationship, the dynamic between them generally antagonistic, expressed in a fusillade of insults, mirroring the treatment they get at the hands of their peers. In a truly receptive and flexible culture, Eriopis implies, being a refugee ought to provide an opportunity for self-reinvention: not the constant drag of defence against opposition. That opportunity is inscribed in the American Dream, communicated globally via Hollywood, but here it is just another illusion to be ripped away.
Schober has made up the boy’s name, glueing together the Greek words for many strangers, to emphasise how emblematic he is: his story is happening in the world, now, as it has always happened in the world, at least in a world of borders. Mothers, and fathers, attempting the passage out of war zones, risking the journey by sea with their children, and sometimes dying for it. What is the relationship between despair and hope, which leads a mother to kill her children, whether by stabbing them and continuing to live herself, as Euripides originally imagined it, or by jumping in front of a train while holding her children’s hands, as in that newspaper story from a few years ago that continues to haunt me, or by climbing aboard a small, rickety, over-peopled vessel and casting out on a merciless sea? These are questions that Schober can’t answer, and nor can I. And so he doesn’t talk about it, and nor do I, except in letters I hope you never read.
My Mother Medea is on at the Unicorn Theatre until 25th November 2016. Click here for more details.