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.

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