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Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

Mommy Dearest

Medea by Euripides. Directed by Deborah Warner, and translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, with Fiona Shaw, Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 1-12.

Medea is one of the most accessible of the extant Greek tragedies, and one of the most obviously relevant to modern audiences. What could be more universal than a woman betrayed by her husband, who ultimately kills her own children? And yet all Greek tragedies in modern productions are inherently problematic. Actors are forced to tackle tragic events in platitudinous language; Medea has to say to the children she intends to kill, “I gave you life, and now I will give you…death.” And there is always the problem of the chorus: their punctuating odes are enjoyable to read on the page, but are not usually dramatic, and often contain references to mythological figures and geographical areas that have no meaning for a modern audience. The chorus’s advice can often fall into cliché, and we have to watch it react to events on stage. This is a tall order. There are also set pieces to overcome in every tragedy: lengthy messenger speeches or, very often, a central sophistic debate that is too stagy for our more naturalistic tastes today. Even the more accessible tragedies are difficult to pull off.

Deborah Warner has clearly thought out her direction of Medea: we watch Medea progress to the point where she has no choice but to kill her children, and we learn why she does it; Fiona Shaw’s portrayal of Medea is natural and purposeful. At times she seems to be playing herself. But does the play work? The audience at BAM seemed to think so – the cast received a standing ovation – but I am not so sure.

The set looks promising before the actors enter: a square pool is center-stage conjuring up ancient houses with their atria and colonnades. Children’s toys left where they fell litter this home, and foreshadow what is to come. The set conjures up domesticity and intimacy: we are outside Medea and Jason’s home. This is what this production does best; it pulls us into Medea’s family. When he enters, the tutor will run down the stairs of the auditorium carrying one of Medea’s children on his back. Of course, that is what a tutor does – he looks after children – but it is rarely so clearly portrayed. And these children are your children or mine; they wear jeans and t-shirts and carry backpacks. The modern dress of the production is just that: modern dress. And it works, to a point. The problem with a globalized, “Gap”-modern, Greek tragedy is the language of the play and the references to Greek myths, Greek gods, and ancient geography. If you change one part of it, the dress, do you have to change the language and references, too? Not necessarily, but a false note results when you don’t.

The nurse begins the play in her jeans; she, too, anticipates what is to come by tripping and scattering the knives she is carrying. Luckily, the rest of the cast is not as dismal as this opening character; she seems to be from another play entirely, she’s breathlessly upset and delivers her words in a strange staccato rhythm. But the kitchen knives set the stage: this is a woman’s world, a domestic world, but there is violence just under the surface.

Medea and the chorus will pick up toys, wash faces, and polish the glass on the set, which is an odd mixture of intimacy and design chic. There are the domestic details of the toys, but they are juxtaposed with modern glass panes and doors. Then there are the cinderblocks wrapped in plastic. Are they meant to symbolize the lack of stability in Medea’s life? Has she not fully unpacked here in Corinth? Is her house not finished? Or did the contractor walk off the remodeling job? I was not sure. Perhaps this dichotomy is reflected in the play itself; it is partly intimate – Jason and Medea’s relationship with their children – but partly public and for show. The chorus is made up of Corinthian women who have come to gawk at Medea; they have shopping bags and one is eating potato chips. Fiona Shaw enters wearing sunglasses: she is clearly a celebrity. She does not disappoint, but quickly the chorus is drawn into her plight.

Fiona Shaw is a delightful, flip Medea. She makes fun of herself; she was a souvenir from abroad, she strikes an Egyptian pose, but now she’s alone, and angry. “I made you,” she says of Jason, calling him the “vilest man,” while adding derisive noises to the inadequate words. But she hams up the role, even making fun of the folksy music, which is meant to leave us in no doubt that Medea is a foreigner here and all alone. It also draws attention to the absurdity of this folk music from Ireland (or Scotland) when we are supposed to be in Corinth. Again, if you change one thing, perhaps you need to change the other.

Shaw’s Medea is ultimately too flip and funny, but the opening scenes fly past. One expects histrionics, but this Medea is sarcastic, deliberate, and intelligent. This is good entertainment. Her use of the children’s toys is amusing at first, but over-the-top in the end: the doctor’s stethoscope, the toy gun, a stuffed bear she sets on fire. She uses these props too much, but we never forget the children.

We never forget sex either: Jason is a playboy, and he and Medea are still physically attracted to each other. He puts his arms around her waist and she melts into him. This is such a difficult role because nearly all Jason has to say is put into a formal debate with Medea. He is a caricature, a cardboard cutout, and his glibness provokes a modern audience. But anyone who knows anything about shipwrecked heroes in ancient literature knows that Jason needs to marry the local princess to secure his position in a foreign land. Think of Aeneas; he has to lose his wife as he leaves Troy so that he can marry Lavinia and found Rome. Odysseus never lets on that he has Penelope at home until he has impressed the local king, flirted with his daughter, and made sure of his return ticket. An Athenian audience would have seen Jason’s point when he debates with Medea. But no Jason stands a chance in this play dominated by his wife.

This particular Jason, Jonathan Cake, is good-looking enough, and has a nice voice, but when he points out that he brought Medea to Greece, he almost thumps his chest and might as well have been transported from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He is never more absurd than when he changes out of his jeans and into his wedding clothes: is this meant to be modern dress? I wasn’t sure. His wedding shoes got a program credit of their own. (This outfit was a very odd choice; surely the costume designer could have done better than this.)

Shaw is hip and contemporary in a lanky, angular sort of way, and she uses this well. We believe that Jason could find her attractive, and when Aegeus breezes through, offering her a place of refuge, he, too, puts his arms around her waist and we believe the chemistry. As her plan falls into place for her revenge on Jason, she seems to grow taller and more upright. As she regains her power, she ceases to be funny and one of the women, but seems to dissociate from herself in order to be able to kill her children. This was fascinating to watch, and one could not help but agree when she said quietly, “I am of another kind.” She wasn’t at the beginning, she was one of us and we laughed with her, but, as the play progresses, she clearly is “other,” seeming to absent herself from her “self,” clearly dissociating.

We do have to wonder what Jason was thinking when he planned to leave her. This is the same Medea who helped him steal the Golden Fleece (he had to sew dragon teeth, fight fire-breathing bulls, and trick the dragon that guarded it) and, in their escape from Colchis, cut up her own brother limb from limb in order to help Jason get away from her father. She has already murdered for his love, after all. This is the kind of woman one would want to keep on one’s good side.

After the murders of Creon and his daughter are carried out, Medea seems to lose herself in her plans more and more, walking through the pool of water as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Jason will do this later, as, in his grief, he will not know what he’s doing either. There is a deliberateness to Medea once she has her exile postponed a day; she seduces Jason, smooth-talks Aegeus, and, when the messenger runs in to tell her of the destruction planted by her in the palace, she wants to know all the gory details. Derek Hutchinson, as the messenger, by the way, is to be applauded for his use of quiet to convey emotion. Medea has backed herself into a corner; she now has to kill her children before someone else does. They are now her Achilles’ heel.

  The male characters come and go while Medea holds center-stage. The chorus wants to rewrite history from a female point of view; there is no need with a Medea like this one. Poor Jason is just a regular guy, and no match for her, but when we see them as family with their children, we see them as they once were perhaps, and we feel for him as a father and for her as a mother. This is the private, domestic side that this production does so well. The children’s murder actually matters because we have gained a sense of them as a family unit. Once this is set up, it makes no sense to have a stylized murder scene with loud jarring music and blood splattering against glass panels. Medea even changes into a white robe on stage, while the children strip down into little white undershirts. It is at this point that the intimate spell that has been cast is broken. We know the bloodshed is coming, but why the change of clothing? Why the white clothes unless to emphasize the redness of the blood? Why the little boys in their underclothes? This feels like emotional blackmail, overkill. The foundation has been laid so carefully until now. Less here would have been more.

Everyone knows that Jason jilts Medea and, in revenge, she kills their children. This production seems to offer a different interpretation: Medea says that she will kill her children to prove her love. The last thing we see is Medea, a half-playful expression on her face, flicking water onto a sobbing Jason. It is terrifying; she is trying to win him back. This is a very different Medea from the demigoddess of the traditional version, who flies off in her grandfather, Helios’ chariot. This Medea has killed her enemies to prove how much she loves Jason, and so she stays.

This production was originally put on at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2000, and came to the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as the opener for BAM’s 20th annual Next Wave Festival. Only Fiona Shaw and one other actor remain from the original cast. A domestic Medea in flat shoes and a cardigan who does not scream and yell, but quietly works her plan, is a rarity; this is an interpretation that does not rely on Medea as a femme fatale. She calls to mind Helen back home in Sparta after the Trojan War in The Odyssey: a hausfrau content to spin and weave. This is the stuff of tragedy, ancient and modern.

Natasha Prenn teaches Latin at The Bronx High School of Science.
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