First Silence Then Darkness

On 29 October 2014 I was fortunate enough to see an encore screening of Nation Theatre’s production of Euripides’ ‘Medea’. Medea is a Greek tragedy play written by Euripides over two-thousand years ago as part of the City Dionysia. The National Theatre production of 2014 is a new version by Ben Power, starring Helen McRory as Medea. Please note: There will be spoilers for the play in the following post.

It was serendipity that I was able to watch this production. It has finished its live run, as well as the live broadcasts. I was intending to see a film today; I am visiting Nottingham and intended to take the opportunity to go to the cinema. I really do love going to the movies (and the theatre) and it’s something there no chance of me doing in the forest. I was looking for something else, but the Nottingham Broadway Cinema was listing an encore performance of Medea. I mention the live run but the reality is that I couldn’t have afforded tickets anyway. It’s a sad fact of life that, for the poor, engaging with our shared culture heritage is almost always not something on the event ticket. Catching an encore performance is still price-y at £14 a ticket, but it is a luxury I can manage. For people trying to feed a family on reduced wages, it’s not a consideration. Nottingham Broadway Cinema also offers reduced rates for unwaged patrons, at £12 a ticket. It’s not much, but it is a nice gesture that I appreciated.

I am never entirely sure about watching theatre on the cinema screen. One of the real pleasures I take with going to see a play is that my eyes can wander the stage, seeing what the characters who are not currently centre are doing. This isn’t an effort to catch people in unguarded errors but on a stage production the actors are always, well, acting and I find it helps to give a production a sense of wholeness. When a stage production is filmed, the camera very much controls what you are looking at. Unlike in a film, it is less possible to carefully tailor shots so it ends up being a hybrid, worst of both worlds. That’s a minor quibble though, and it is a great way to see plays you might not get to for whatever reason.

I did not recognise anyone on the playbill and I am not massively familiar with the subject matter, or the extended world of Greek tragedy. I have seen productions of Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex; rather different plays but both transporting the classical Greek play in to a near-modern setting. I don’t have a problem with this; I think keeping them in Hellenistic Greece would actually more of a problem, because it would be more of an affectation. It is interesting that all three of the plays don’t quite reach the present but it does present an interesting way of presenting events as something that happened recent enough to affect us, but distant enough that people can draw conclusions.

This production of Medea began with a helpful bit of establishing talk by the director Carrie Cracknell, Helen McRory and (I think) Julia Stroud talking about the play. I was a bit disheartened by the placement of events in the play in a modernised psychological framework. This might seem at odds with my previous nonchalance about the design choice. Perhaps I am being hypocritical. I am ambivalent about the rush to universalize our experience though; Medea is motivated by a culture very different from the modern, and to apply simply the definitions of modern criminal psychology to her imposes a very different set of culture values to those in which the play was generated. Alongside this we should remember that the mythological underpinning of Medea, of the Hellenistic world, are something that Euripides and his audience would be taking very seriously. The Gods will be watching.

A decision made in translation was to ‘normalise’ the speech. At the time of watching the play, I wasn’t aware of this, but I was aware of the strangeness of the actors’ method. It felt very much like they were declaiming verse but it certainly wasn’t. It gave everything an odd rhythm, neither here nor there. I’m ambivalent how I feel about this; on the one hand it comes across as awkward, try hard almost. On the other hand, this not-quite-rightness does unsettle the audience member into a similar liminal space to that which Medea must be occupying. Barbarism in ancient Greek was very much predicated on linguistic belonging. I do wonder if it would have been even more striking had everyone except Medea had spoken plainly, and she in verse. I posit it this way because it makes Medea occupy both the strange, as she is speaking poetically, but also the familiar, as we are used to that voice in theatrical performance. This would, in speech, achieve something similar to the use of the chorus, who speak as Corinthians but are (inexplicably) aligned with Colcis in their ‘voodoo’ dances.

To a certain extent I’ve framed what I watched within my own understanding; the appearance of Kreon almost leapt out at me to associate this as related in some way to the plays I have already seen. This is potentially dangerous when engaging with the play, as Euripides is not Sophocles. They do come from the same context, though, and (thanks Liam) Greek plays were usually written to address something of their time. Medea does stand out from those other plays because it is about an outsider. Power’s version retains but rather soften the fact that Medea is a barbarian woman in Greece. She is doubly Other. Without Jason, she has nothing. Her murder of her children is monstrous, of this there can be no doubt, but Jason’s insincere calculations are quite likely to result in their deaths also.

Much is made in this production about how we are powerless in the face of divine plan. This is interestingly at odds with everything else I’ve ever been exposed to in terms of classical Greek culture. In Greek theatre it is (usually) the case that the tragedy that befalls humanity is down to the inherent flaws in human character; our hamartia if you will. If one is looking for cosmic horror and inevitability of fate, it seems to be the Germanic mythic cycles that hold more allure. However, I think that there is fertile ground for this conversation, and ample evidence to support reading of Greek cultural productions in another way, very exciting. I liked Power’s production for its spin on this, even if I’m not sure that it stands up without some reconfiguration of the content of the original material. I also think it may be the case that we frame as divine plan what the Greeks may have intended as things outside our frame of reference.

Jason finds Medea in the (figurative and literal) woods after she has killed their two sons. There follows an exchange in which Medea finishes with the line that they have both crossed over and can see there is no good, no evil, only the complexities of life. This is a modern equivocation of the classical ideas behind the play: In the context in which it operates, Medea is the villain to Jason, but it is just as consistent that Jason is the villain to Medea, and both of their actions are justified and moral in the eyes of their gods. It is a terrible thing to consider breaking one’s word as comparable to child-murder but the strength of the play is that it asks us to consider this; to consider not that there is no good and evil but rather that good and evil might be more complex to navigate than either black and white morality or quasi-nihilistic equivocation.

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