The director’s programme notes for Medea ask the key question about this tragedy, first performed 2500 years ago: what is it that keeps audiences coming back to it, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, each time with renewed fascination?
The answer is simple: it takes you inside the mind of a woman who does something so unnatural, so inhuman, so brutal, that her actions should be beyond all civilised understanding. And it makes you understand her.
The text doesn’t excuse Medea, and nor does she excuse herself. Euripides won’t even grant that fig-leaf of human connection. Instead, he throws Medea at you, with all her sin, and he says, ‘Deal with it!’ We are left to contemplate a strength of purpose and a perception of injustice so intense and so clear-minded that our liberal sensitivities quail before it, and we leave the theatre in awe, unable either to condemn or condone.
This production, the ‘Oxford Greek Play’ for 2023, gives us an ostensibly new translation by the creative team. The claim in the programme is that it brings a 21st century perspective to the text (a promise that gets dragged out all too frequently, but doesn’t often deliver). The National Theatre’s 2014 staging starring the late, great Helen McRory, truly brought a modern perspective to Medea. It avoided the quasi-operatic grandeur that often accompanies Greek tragedy, and instead brought us a real human being who switched between the murderous, the manipulative and the motherly with an unpredictability that felt relevant and real. She first appeared in a pair of dungarees, brushing her teeth, and the sight of her slinking into the darkness bearing the bloodstained sleeping-bags of her children is one that I am unlikely to forget.
Halah Irvine’s and Neel Gokal’s version for the OUCDS (Oxford University Classical Drama Society) takes a much more conventional approach. Characters stand centre-stage, point themselves at the audience, and declaim. Acts of violence happen off-stage, artfully rendered in silhouette behind a giant lightbox, appearing as human shadow-puppets. There’s a full-on, traditional Greek Chorus of women, sharing the pain and bemoaning the fate of mankind. Half of it is actually performed in Ancient Greek, with translations on screens at the side of the stage. It felt like the sort of performance you might see a hundred years ago – with the one exception of a completely unexpected and utterly out-of-place yell of ‘FUCK!’ from Medea herself. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating expletives into the text, but doing it just once, and in the context of such an otherwise traditional performance, felt frankly bizarre, like someone suddenly switching on GB News in the middle of Teletubbies.
In a theatrical world where people are forever seeking new and refreshing interpretations, there is definite value in sometimes going back to basics, and that was the inner strength of this production. The actors poured themselves into their roles with deep, passionate commitment. And because of the overall declamatory style they came across as resonant icons, more like opera singers than relatable characters. As Jason, Jelanie Munroe was almost balletic in his final throes of agony, and Siena Jackson Wolfe’s Medea was statuesque, arms aloft, dripping blood as she cursed her oppressors. The Greek recitations of the Chorus were focused more on verbal synchronisation than the harmony of human agony, but this brought them a definite sense of stature that was imposing if not emotionally involving. If they were statues, they were more Terracotta Army than Burghers of Calais. (As an exception, Ben Gilchrist, as Aegeus, was the only one whose performance had a flavour of modernity about it, and he garnered several laughs from his short scene.)
While there is value to this approach, it doesn’t make for the most gripping theatrical experience. Reverent rather than riveting.
From a stagecraft perspective, the broad, symmetrical set with its upper and lower levels perfectly matched the production style. I do however think it’s incumbent on designers to bear auditorium sight-lines in mind. I was sitting at the end of a row, and could only see half of the silhouetted murder scenes as the panel was cut off by the proscenium arch. There were other annoying little niggles such as the positioning of the TV screens with the English text. These were on either side of the stage, well outside the proscenium, meaning in order to read them you had to take your eyes completely away from the action. Surtitles, as used in opera, would keep the audience’s focus closer to the stage.
Overall, this is a deeply scholarly production. It knows the text and it treats it with respect. You might have to stifle a few yawns on the way through, but hey, not everything is fun fun fun. Euripides would have approved.