Theatre Review: Medea @ Bristol Old Vic
by Polly Hember
“This woman matters”, Akiya Henry professes in the closing lines of George Mann’s modern Medea. This is the overarching message that drives the powerful piece onwards to the bitterly tragic yet strangely uplifting denouement.
Euripides’ version of Medea’s story where the sorceress gives her heart to Jason, helping him win the Golden Fleece, bearing his children in happy marriage until he discards her to marry the princess bride Glauce. Scorned and cast aside, Euripides’ scheming and maleficent Medea sends poison gifts to the bride, killing both her and her the father King of Corinth. She then kills her children as a final act of revenge to ruin the House of Jason.
Mann and writer Chino Odimba present a new version of Medea that allows the audience to see her from a different perspective, asking what differentiates “necessary justice” and spiteful revenge and delves into the devastating emotional consequences, both political and personal, of betrayal. Using an astonishingly talented all-female cast, they tell the story of the marginalised and the silenced, narrating Ancient Greek sensibility from a female perspective.
Poet Robin Robertson’s translation of Euripides is interwoven with Odimba’s modern narrative of Maddy, a housewife whose army husband Jack’s lifestyle has uprooted them countless times over the years, is abruptly abandoned, leaving her to take care of her two sons alone with no source of income. She finds herself turning to an old, dog-eared copy of Medea, finding inspiration, solidarity and solace. Splicing Ancient Greek Corinth and modern day London, the script is a blend of choral singing and powerfully charged, rhythmic free running verse which is performed with such feeling it almost sounds like poetry slam, most notably in the tense feuds between Medea/Maddy and Jason/Jack.
The six women, on stage throughout the entire performance, were simply brilliant. They produce a sense of female unity and support in a narrative which is wreaked with abandonment and exile. The choral singing, the physical dramatics where they move in unison, tap, stamp and click fingers to create corporeal sound - slightly abrupt and distracting to start with - the movement, sound and singing emphasised the narratological developments and brought a fresh, simple, contemporary style that accentuated the core themes of body politics and communities.
The set was beautifully simple; designer Shizuka Heriu merged the modern and ancient with clean, minimalistic white props. In the second act, a grand white staircase is unveiled which allows Medea to ascend slowly, gradually, leaving her devastated ex-husband Jason (played superbly by Stephanie Levi-Johnson) down below. The climactic interaction between the two after the appalling murder – Medea, half way up to the heavens, and Jason on his knees – displays Medea’s strength and ferocity which is also measured and detached as she watches the tragedy. It is a burning, ferocious revenge and simultaneously serves as elating, freeing justice and release.
Henry is phenomenal as Medea, conveying not only her all-consuming anger, but also the distraught emotive turmoil between motherly love and desperate need for retribution. Unafraid to dip into dark humour, she is powerful and impressive. As Maddy, she puts across the insecurities and rage of a single-mother scorned, threatened by legalities and court cases. The writing around Maddy’s character could perhaps use more development and thought; in paralleling the ancient and contemporary so closely, Maddy’s utter dependence on the bulshy Jack and her unwillingness to get herself a job is slightly at odds with the brilliant feminist reappraisal of the classic taking place. Even still, Henry’s handling of Maddy and the ambiguous end to the tale (don’t worry, Maddy doesn’t slaughter her children!) still produces a strong and powerful mirroring between old and new where both inspirational characters actively take hold of their futures.
Medea interrogates the public and private consequences of chauvinistic entitlement and the destructive aftermath of marital breakdowns that can leave women struggling and men comfortably settling down with new (often younger) partners. What makes this production a success is the production’s nuanced ability to tell stories from the other side, to breathe life and modernity into the Greek tragedy where the focus is on gender and empowerment where, despite the dark horror of the tragedy, we see them rise.
Check out our gallery to see pictures of the tremendous production.