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Medeia at the Union Theatre

Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The last great Greek tragedian Euripidesâ feminist play Medeia, written in 431 BC was, in its own time, highly innovative.

Jackie Kane, Scott Ainslie (Stagephoto)
Jackie Kane, Scott Ainslie (Stagephoto)

For the playwright was writing, in the midst of the Athenian golden age about human beings, as they really are, rather than as the then popular, glorified heroes they may have been. Taking Greek myth as his starting point, he preferred to model his characters on flesh and blood people, as opposed to gods and goddesses. Medeia, like Hippolytus deals with private emotion rather than public spectacle. Euripedes was also a man of questions, invariably posing them without suggesting any answers. In his capacity as a playwright however, he was always interested in feminine psychology.

The play begins on a rather Jungian note with all of the male characters on one side of the room, and females on the other with Medeia seated at their feminine heart. This is appropriate, for her emotions are central to the plot. Musicians stationed at either end of the performance area send out taut, quivering notes from violin or cello to heighten dramatic tension. The occasional pattering of a drum or tinkling of cymbals chimes in.
The triangle is set in motion with a sensuous dance between Medeia and her lustful spouse Iason, which is suddenly cut short by the appearance of his new, nubile love interest, Glauke.

Medeia is a woman scorned and, outraged. Her long beloved husband, Iason for whom she has already murdered her own brother and left her country has now abandoned her for a younger woman, who is also, a more powerful one, in that she is of royal birth, whereas, Medeia's people are, literally, barbarians. The wronged wife is, however also a highly skilled sorceress which, enables her to allow her formerly fervent love for her husband to, not only cool, but also, indelibly burn.

Jackie Kane, who also adapted the play, takes on the challenging role of Medeia. She does an admirable job, especially considering the fact that the ensemble wound up directing themselves, having cast off two misguiding directors in the course of rehearsals. [NB – see note below] Kane's scenes as the psychotic sorceress are as demanding and varied as any could be in any play such is the complexity of Medeia's psyche laid bare. The building power of her performance leads the audience into the play's whirlpool to the point where it seems to be collectively holding its breath. Scott Ainslie, who was also Kane's leading man in her successful play This to This at the Union Theatre last year gives a similarly momentum gathering performance as Iason, a formerly heroic Argonaut who has now been left to alternately rage and dash himself against the rocks of cruel fate. Valda Avilks lends earthiness as Nanny of Medeia's doomed sons and a member of the chorus and Callum Coates, who will, no doubt, be instantly recognisable to fans of Bankside's acclaimed theatrical troupe, 'The Lion's Part,' gives a commanding performance as the King, Kreon. Jonathan Bidgood, who also composed a soundscape for the production plays Envoy and percussionist Patric Deony takes on the role of Guard. Phillip Leamon plays both the part of Teacher and of Aigeas.

The chorus, in addition to actress Avilks, includes Emma Bown, Ximena Garcia Vera, who plays cello and has composed original music for the production, Phillippa Robson and Harriet Muller, who also portrays Iason's trophy intended, Glauke. Together, the women function as Media's audible stream of consciousness, as she ponders the pros and cons of her chosen course of action, though their most overtly contemporary interjections sometimes tend to jar amidst the classical overtones. According to tradition, the chorus represents the women of Corinth, who are, initially horrified, then, awed by Medeia's murderous actions, for they inwardly believe that by seeking revenge on her faithless husband in the worst possible way, she is also avenging the wrongs committed by men, against all womankind. However, as Medeia has sworn them to a vow of silence, they can do nothing to interfere with her plans. In this adaptation their group justification of her cruel actions has been softened. Although the women could be heard complaining about the many things their men routinely, and to them, somewhat unjustly expect of them earlier on, by the time the play has drawn to its inevitably crushing conclusion, the potentially deadly, duplicitous psychological implications of the chorus have collapsed into utter chaos, enabling the audience to react to Medeia's vengeful acts along with them.

A series of six, abstract botanical, symbol-strewn paintings by Steve Wilson, hung together, serve as an adjoining backdrop suggesting an ethereal wilderness. And Steve Miller's imaginative lighting enhances the sense of cooling ardour or fiery passion during pivotal moments. Intriguing movement, directed by Jessica Swale highlights elements of desire and danger, one memorable example of the latter being when Kane, as sorceress Medeia mirrors the movements of her rival Glauke, weaving a spell around the young woman as she prepares for her marriage to Iason.

Nothing is really sacred in Euripides plays, a notion that made him unpopular in his own hero encrusted time. No one really wants to hear the voice of reason in the midst of his or her own human folly. In keeping with those ideas, this contemporary version of his classical play Medeia seeks to demythologise modern obsessions with youth and celebrity culture. It also serves as a moral tale of sorts now, as then, reminding its audience that revenge is definitely a dish best left to simmer on the back burner.

Note: The phrase 'cast-off' was, by no means meant to be derogatory. The two, unnamed directors referred to here left of their own accord, according to mutual agreement. The word 'misguiding' in reference to both was only meant to indicate that their ideas as to how the play might be presented differed from those of the company that they were working with.

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