Director Holly Smith’s production of Medea is an ambitious, if at times muddled, reworking of Euripedes’ seminal tragedy. The play is performed in both English (with an all-new translation) and generally authentic-sounding Ancient Greek, an impressive feat that the cast should be applauded for. However, a few questionable artistic decisions and inconsistent performances hold this production back from reaching its full potential.
Smith updates the action to early 20th Century London, an intelligent and timely creative decision that brings the original text’s latent themes of patriarchal dominance and suppression of the female voice to the forefront. However, one questions whether this setting would be better suited to an entirely English-language production – the anachronistic presence of Ancient Greek adds an immersion-breaking incongruity to the otherwise well considered sense of period, which is only further compounded by the constant - at times effective, at others painfully arbitrary - switching between English and Ancient Greek.
Technically, the play is near flawless. Other than a few technical hiccups involving the English subtitles for the Ancient Greek dialogue (entirely understandable given the sheer volume of text) the production is a wonder to behold. The action takes place in a run-down, gorgeously naturalistic apartment interior, which is spectacularly replaced by a pristine, white background in the beautifully directed final scene, in which Medea confronts Jason in the chariot of Helios, accompanied by the corpses of her two children, here depicted as two school uniforms on coat hangers. Costume and mise en scène are equally effective, all in service to the painstakingly cultivated historical setting, which the director, producer and crew should be proud of.
Similarly, the direction of the play’s Chorus, aptly depicted as a pack of gossiping housewives, is almost military in its precision, their tightly choreographed interactions with each other and the rest of the cast and their haunting chanting reflecting Medea’s perturbed mental state resulting in some of the play’s most effective moments of physical theatre and visual imagery.
The character of Medea is in many ways representative of the production as a whole. The actress is often wonderful; the scene in which she resolves to murder her and Jason’s children is an outstanding depiction of maternal anguish and the internal conflict that drives one to such extremes, whilst her appearance in the final scene is a searing moment of female empowerment, utterly dominating the man who spent so much of the play oppressing her. The production’s bilingual aspect was at its most effective here; by having Medea speak in English, the sequence emphasizes Medea’s newfound voice, power and agency, her words ringing out across the auditorium for all to hear, utterly drowning out Jason’s frenzied, unintelligible Ancient Greek. However, I did feel that her performance occasionally descended into scenery chewing, particularly in the play’s earlier scenes when interacting with some of the more reserved cast members. Furthermore, the bloodless, dispassionate depiction of Medea’s children as uniforms on coat hangers against an all-white background seemed to literally whitewash the brutality of her crimes, her almost angelic appearance raising the problematic notion that as a victim of the patriarchy Medea’s infanticide is therefore excusable, even justifiable, a reading of the play that veers into troublingly misandrist territory.
The rest of the cast range from adequate to occasionally excellent, the actor playing Aegeus provided proceedings with some well-needed comic relief, whilst Jason’s hubris and consequential downfall was depicted with immense pathos. The entire cast should be commended for the reams of Ancient Greek they had to learn and deliver, and for managing to generally sound convincing, save for a few distractingly RP-tinged performances.
There is much to enjoy in this modern retelling of Euripedes’ classic tragedy of passion, vengeance and the folly of man, with several intelligent creative decisions contextualizing and reframing the themes for a modern-day audience. However, problematic undertones, inconsistent performances, and immersion-breaking usage of language undermining the otherwise excellently realized setting all undercut what is otherwise an accomplished, ambitious piece of theatre.