Tragedy? A review of Medea. (Black Swan State Theatre Company and WA Youth Theatre Company)

Co-written by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise SarksMedea is a unique and meaningful adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, the latter first produced in 431BC.

This adaptation – perhaps a better word is ‘reimagining’, or even just ‘imagining’ – focuses almost exclusively on Medea’s sons. For those not familiar with the Greek classic, Medea kills her own sons in order to take revenge on her husband, Jason (Golden Fleece guy) for arranging to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. Jason couldn’t pass up the opportunity of marrying a princess, he tells his wife, a mere barbarian, but he hopes they can all live happily together one day, Glauce as his wife and Medea, his mistress. 

‘Over my sons’ dead bodies!’ says Medea. (Well, she doesn’t actually say that but you get the point…)

The Mulvany-Sarks adaptation suffers slightly from a lack of story. We observe for most of the play two boys fooling around in their bedroom – a modern-day bedroom rendered wonderfully by Designer Bryan Woltjen. The desire to depict Medea’s sons as perfectly normal boys comes at the expense of a strong through-line. This is not to say there is the absence of a through-line but a stronger sense of foreboding needs to underscore the boys’ frivolity – and the sense of foreboding needs to start right at the beginning. Just look at the first line/s of the following classic Greek tragedies:

From Medea: Ah! Would to Heaven the good ship Argo ne’er had sped its course to the Colchian land…

From Oedipus the King: My children, latest generation born from Cadmus, why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks in supplication to me, while the city fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain?

From Agamemnon: The gods relieve my watch: that’s all I ask. Year-long I’ve haunched here on this palace roof,

From Antigone: Ismene, dear sister, you would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus. I cannot imagine any grief that you and I have not gone through….

We shouldn’t feel comfortable at any stage during a tragedy and I assume the Mulvany-Sarks adaptation is a tragedy given two innocent boys are killed.  The authors would do well to think ‘transfuse’ instead of ‘adapt’ when it comes to repurposing an existing play – infusing the new work with the spirit of the old before placing it in a 21st-century context.

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The ‘normality’ presented to the audience was at once excessive and cautious. When audiences can quickly understand, thanks to the set, that two unremarkable boys are presented for our consideration, further action and/or dialogue whose purpose it is to communicate the boys are ‘perfectly normal’ is superfluous. The excessive ‘normality’ might have been more tolerable if the normality were, well, more normal. (The kind of sibling rivalry presented was the kind a parent could only dream of!)

That said, Jalen Hewitt, as Jasper, and Jesse Vakatini, as Leon, looked extremely comfortable as brothers on stage. Their lack of self-consciousness brought a good deal of of authenticity to the relationship, the family, and the situation. 

Alexandria Steffensen, as Medea was strong throughout, superb, especially, when it came to playing the grieving mother. It was Alex/Medea who drove the story forward in the absence of any real plot early on. From the moment she steps on stage, whether we’re familiar with the Euripides version or not, it is clear a cloud has descended on the boys’ bedroom, and, indeed, on the boys themselves. Alex’s final scene – getting the boys dressed, offering them poisoned cordial, and clinging to her eventually dead sons – was refreshingly confronting. Indeed, the play is worth seeing only for that.

When the play does start hurtling towards its denouement, it is theatre – tragedy – at its best. It’s a shame the inexorable movement towards the horrible conclusion did not start earlier. Sally Richardson has directed this piece admirably although she could elicit more antagonism between the boys. I wonder whether what each boy wanted, given he was cooped up in a bedroom with his brother, was considered, or whether the priority was given to making the boys, and the relationship between them, as ‘real’ as possible. At any rate this production is underpinned by a script and it is the script that needs some work if this is to be a modern classic reminiscent of the ancients.

The actors are come hither… A Review of Much Ado About Nothing (Bell Shakespeare Company) at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth

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Perth is once again privileged to enjoy high-quality Shakespeare thanks to the Bell Shakespeare Company, who have this year brought Much Ado About Nothing to the State Theatre of WA.

Largely a comedy, the play does not lack poignant moments. The poignancy could have been played a little less by Will McDonald, as Claudio, who, with his own tears, robbed us of catharsis, at times. Other than that, Will was brilliant as Claudio, gentle, but hotheaded when he needed to be. Will’s rejection of Hero, played by Vivienne Awosoga, was particularly convincing. Will also played Borachio, one of the schemers, whose plan, carried out days before Hero and Claudio’s wedding, is to make Claudio believe that Hero is unfaithful to him. Will could not have drawn two more distinctly different characters. 

Danny Ball was another actor who regaled us with two very well-conceived characters. Strikingly handsome, suave, and upright as Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, he situated himself at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum to play the First Watchman, one of those who would eventually bring in the culprits bent on ruining the marriage between Hero and Claudio.

Another actor who doubled was Marissa Bennet, whose Margaret (a waiting-gentlewoman, attendant on Hero) was every bit the witty, sexy, sassy woman she needed to be. Margaret’s Verges, (Constable Dogberry’s partner), unfortunately fell victim to caricature.

Yet another actor who played two roles was Paul Reichstein, whose Don John was deliciously villainous. It is indeed a pleasure to see an actor acting even unto his eyebrows! Reichstein’s Second Watchman was sufficiently comic. With his pot belly, stance, and fixed facial expression,  Reichstein could have even pulled back a little for this (Watchman) character.

Perhaps the most striking transformation between one character and another was that of Mandy Bishop, whose extremely lively Dogberry, the constable in charge of Messina’s night watch, contrasted wildly with the mild-mannered Balthasar, an attendant on Don Pedro, and a singer. Towards the cartoon-end of funny, Dogberry was a character that stood out, perhaps a little too much so. Yes, Dogberry is a comic character but with most other actors playing quite real people, the almost caricature Dogberry seemed a little at odds with the world of the play.

Duncan Ragg was a star. Captivating as Benedick, Duncan milked the role for all its angst and comedy. His appeals to the audience got a bit tedious at times but this might come back to Director James Evans. We need to laugh AT Benedick – we don’t need to, nor do we want to, laugh WITH Benedick, and we certainly do not want to laugh with Duncan. Moments in which the audience share a laugh with the actor/s are fun and can be beautiful – we all, for a moment, realise we’ve gathered like children to make believe – but audiences arguably do not want to be conscious of this for the most part because it’s not what they ‘signed up for’. 

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Bell Shakespeare have done well to make Shakespeare accessible to Australians over the last 20 years or so. They have done that by, among other things, appropriately contextualising the plays they produce and highlighting, often with clear action, the humour to be found in the lines. The desire to highlight such humour has probably led to a few Bell Shakespeare-isms over the years, the thrusting of the hips to indicate sex is being discussed being one such example. Adopting broad Australian accents for characters of lower socio-economic class seems to be another. While all of these well tried-and-tested tricks undoubtedly work, especially with the uninitiated, these  ‘markers’ can wear a bit thin for seasoned ‘Bell-goers’.

The physical world of the play, while functional – partitions and platforms were used to conceal and reveal characters – didn’t seem to add much aesthetically to the world – Messina, (Italy) in this case. One wonders why green banana-leaf-print curtains and bamboo? frames were used but there was undoubtedly a rationale for it. What worked very well were the simple synthetic mats, rolled out to represent different locations – green synthetic turf to represent outdoors, and a pink runner, along with an arbor (wedding arch) to represent the wedding. At any rate, Pip Runciman (Designer) made it all work well and the set certainly did not detract from the production. Something that enhanced the production to no end were the costumes – divine! The costumes did indeed speak of Messina, Italy, and brought the characters into high relief.

The music and sound design for this production did add to the aesthetic experience. Andrée Greenwell’s synthetic sonifcation was very effective for signalling changes of scene, tone, and emotion, and the music for the masquerade ball translated particularly well for our times. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting, moreover, made the party a place to be.

Vivienne Awosoga, as Hero, seems to have had a strong debut with Bell Shakespeare. Vivienne was entirely convincing throughout the play – beautiful, graceful, shocked when accusations of faithlessness were levelled against her, appropriately weak when she could bear no longer those accusations, and strong in her resurrection when she rightfully admonished Claudio for his own lack of faith. Vivienne also doubled as Conrade, a fairly nondescript delinquent, who helps Don Jon to carry out his plans.

Zindzi Okenyo, as Beatrice, also impressed although I’d encourage her to have even more fun with the role. Beatrice, in ‘Much Ado’ is not Katherine, in The Taming of the Shrew although similarities can be found. Shakespeare’s championing of women is already in the script so playing the feisty feminist can sometimes lead to a kind of ‘double negative’ – the feminism in the script and the feminism brought to bear by the well-intentioned actor can cancel each other out. More genuine surprise and less scorn would have made Beatrice more of person, less of an idea, or ideal. At other times, Zindzi was as smooth as silk, running rings around Benedick and often leaving him check-mated. I don’t think Zindzi realises just how smooth she is – she should trust her instincts more.

Two other naturals were David Whitney, as Leonato (Governor of Messina), who brought all the joy and sorrow a father can feel because of his daughter, and Antonio (Leonato’s brother), played strongly by Suzanne Pereira The play was better for the superb diction, pace, and posturing these two actors brought to the part.

James Evans (Director) has done a remarkable job (together with the cast and crew, of course) in achieving a clear, cohesive, and thoroughly entertaining production. For those from WA, if you missed it at the State Theatre, be sure to catch this wonderfully enjoyable production at Albany Entertainment Centre (Aug 13), Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre (15th Aug), or Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (17th Aug).