There Are No Gods or Monsters Here

On Saturday 14 November 2015, I went to see the penultimate performance of Medea by Almeida Theatre. This was a new interpretation written by Rachel Cusk. While based on a play several thousand years old, there are many alterations made for this version, so please be aware that I will be spoiling the play to discuss them. I saw the National Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s version of Medea last year and wrote about my impressions here.

I saw Medea as part of a day out to London with a bit of an antique focus. Prior to the play, I went to the British Museum to look at the Celts exhibition, though that does span from antiquity right up to the modern age. I had had some chance to walk among the artefacts of an ancient age and, in conversation with the friend I was travelling with, refreshed thoughts of the ancient world.

However, this version of Medea, as with the version I saw last year, was a modern interpretation and even further from the source text. It was composed and produced as part of the Almeida Theatre’s ‘Greeks’ season, which also included Oresteia and The Bakkhai. The set, which is sparse and minimalist, a kind of opened up studio space on two levels, immediately intimated to us that this would not be a simple revival of the Classical text.

Kate Fleetwood is phenomenal in the title role and not equalled by any other performer on the stage, though Andy de la Tour comes close when he assumes the role of Kreon. Fleetwood rages, weeps, rages again at Jason, at circumstance, at the on looking audience. This address of the audience invites us to consider our complicity in Medea’s situation: that we as, voyeurs of her breakdown, do contribute it, that in needing her to go through this we are somehow abrogating our responsibility to feel as she does in our lives.

While I enjoyed the play, I was left with a sense that while called Medea, it wasn’t actually Medea that I was watching. As with the Power version, Cusk had chosen to have the characters speak naturalistically, without reference to lyricism. I am beginning to think that this might be a mis-step with performance in general. While it might seem artifice, I think that when something is performed for that stage, attention must be given to the manner in which people listen, as well as they speak. A certain lyricism carries the watcher on through soliloquies. Furthermore, the exchanges between Jason and Medea become screaming matches which, again, while certainly representative, mean that I was little able to follow the exchange. Having bought the script, I can see the effect on the page, but it did not translate to the stage. The only use of verse was on the lips of the Messenger[1], but I found the structure of these lacking and more than a little affected. I wonder if they were intended to evoke an impression of the otherworldly divine, a Dionysian madness and ecstasy, but if so it didn’t have that effect on me.

In Cusk’s version, Medea remains and outsider but this is less pronounced than Power’s version or in Euripides original. Here she is a writer, considered ‘weird’ by the chorus, difficult, ‘a feminist.’ She is harangued by her mother and enjoys an uncertain relationship with her father, yet they are alive and interact with her. Yet she is not the barbarian outsider, the kinslayer and kingslayer of Colchis, and this robs Medea, and by extension the play, of much of its gravity. Medea is dangerous. We know this from the start of things. She has killed before, killed for, and killed because of Jason.

In the source text, the wrong done to Medea by Jason is profound: for him she destroyed her family and has no life to which she can return to.[2] She came to Athens, bore his children, only for him to set her aside at earliest convenience. It is not just that the divine element is gone, it is that the violent character of Medea is erased. It is important to understanding Medea’s response that she is this violent outsider; she has no other recourse to seek. Cusk’s situation is perhaps more relatable to a modern audience, but the change echoes through the play, reducing the moral gravity of events.

Because Medea has not been so wronged by Jason, her revenge similarly cannot be so terrible. In an odd sort of way, this version itself flinches away from rather than confronting the impossible conundrum that Euripides set his audience. The Messenger tells us that there are ‘other ways to kill than knives’ but part of the impact of Medea’s murder is that she carries it out; she transgresses our societal ideas of the duty of motherhood to carry out the divine justice against an oath-breaker. In this version, she instead gains revenge by being a Cassandra to Jason’s downfall. She simply tells a story that goes on to ruin Jason and Glauce’s life. She does not kill Glauce and Creon; Glauce turns out to be horrible and is attacked by a stranger anyway. Creon in turn goes mad. The boys are not murdered, but instead they commit suicide; a tragedy, to be sure, but it does not reflect on Medea, or on us as a society in our treatment or attitudes to motherhood. In a way, the retributive acts are shifted more on to gods, fate, or karma, than in the original. This version does dwell on the judgement of mothers who abandon their children but the power of Medea is that she does something not just unspeakable but unthinkable: she transgresses the moral laws of Athenian (and our) society by upholding the moral law of her own.

Likewise, this Jason is himself something of a milquetoast. He is an actor, probably, having a mid-life crisis. He is not a hero or a wanderer. While it remains that he and Medea are peers – “uncompromising” says this Aegeus. The visiting friend, now an agent in the US, thought of them as soulmates, that as they played chess that “these two people get to have sex with each other too?” The oath between this Medea and Aegeus is also less conflicted: Medea agrees to ghost-write Aegeus novel, but he will produce a play for her. In Euripides’ play, Medea has Aegeus offer her sanctuary in Athens – binding him by the same traditions that will condemn her as a kinslayer in the end.

By changing Medea’s past, changing her from someone instrumental to Jason’s success, the Cusk version robs his betrayal of much of his force. She is an considered out by her peers, but not the absolute outsider that is her position in Euripides play; in many ways, this allows her struggle to be a reflection of that of all women, but taking out the specificity of her situation makes the conclusions lukewarm. By taking the knife from Medea’s hand, Cusk makes her less easily wicked, but also less active. Indeed, in the play all of the resolution takes place in a soliloquy given by the Messenger; a striking bit of theatre as Medea silently shovelling dirt in to a grave, but less than McRory’s Medea considering her children, knife in hand.

The play, rather than being about moral consequence, simply becomes that unpleasant things spiral out of control. Jason is an indifferent father, Medea becomes an absentee mother, and the children kill themselves; the events are sad, and trigger one another, but there is not the conflicted connection of motive and action that makes each actor culpable. I can appreciate the symmetry here, that as Euripides’ Medea was a killer so kills, Cusk’s Medea is a writer so revenges herself through the act of writing, but the changed version lacks the visceral force of the original. Indeed, by having the children take their own lives, it lessens the moral anguish of Medea’s and Jason’s guilt because, while they might be poor or absentee parents, the children become moral actors on their own account – their deaths are something else bad that happens to rather than happens because.

The changes made are good on their own. Having Medea be a suffering middle aged woman, victim of her husband’s mid-life crisis, is something that speaks directly to the experience of the audience.[3] There is also the symmetry of her as writer using words to injure Jason; as the Classical Medea is a kinslayer, so kinslaying is her weapon of choice against Jason. It might have been of use to have had her writing somehow directly buoy Jason up – some mention of them first meeting when she wrote a play that he starred in, that kick-started his career. The Chorus, while not used in a traditional sense, accurately convey both society’s disdain towards this Medea, but also serve as a useful pacing mechanism: as the play progresses, their initial complacency is gradually eroded as they fragment in to their own voices and desires. Eventually, they will dance with Medea and help her as she disassembles her life.

The Messenger does not lie: There are no gods or monsters here. But perhaps there should be.

[1] The Messenger was an amazing bit of costuming: when she first entered they stage, side on, they were the image of a Monroe like figure. Then, turning full on, we see that she is an intersexual Janus, half-man half-woman. This was really visually striking.

[2] It is important to remember when watching or reading Medea that the play is titled for her, placing her immediately as the protagonist. Euripides could have easily named the play “The Tragedy of Corinth” or focused on Creon or some such. Instead, we are implicitly in a position where we are asked to understand and even empathise with the actions of someone who does something monstrous, that we ask what is was that pushed them to this extreme end.

[3] Having Medea being a middle-aged white woman whose primary source of income is writing be served by a maid who is a woman of colour – the only person of colour on the stage – does eliminate some of the ‘disenfranchised outsider’ that is necessary to Medea’s core narrative.

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.