trans. Alistair Elliot,
March 29-June 26, 1994,
New York, New York
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego
From myth to wife, mother to murderess, Medea is to be taken seriously. Jason realized too late that a woman who could murder for him could also condemn him to a fate worse than death - a life emptied of what made it most valuable for him. Medea is a challenging role, to say the least, and one can understand why an actress like Diana Rigg would want to attempt it. She established herself as a Shakespearean actress, and, having already played the title role in Tony Harrison's Phaedra Brittanica, wanted to add another Euripidean heroine to her credits. She seemed perfect for the role of Medea since she played such assertive and aggressive women as Lady Macbeth, and Regan. She had in Jonathan Kent a director who had proved himself in other classics (e.g., Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken), and a designer Peter J. Davison, who has engineered a brilliant set that can be played like a musical instrument. There was also an outstanding chorus of three women, who restore to the modern stage the ancient technique of dancing in accompaniment to their own songs.
But Rigg just does not bring this performance off. She plays Medea too much like Emma Peel of The Avengers. She speaks her lines so quickly that even with her impeccable enunciation, much is lost. She is fashionable and cool, with sporadic outbursts of rage, more like a petulant member of Parliament than a passionate woman scorned. She also gets a lot of laughs, and when she is described as weeping, she is in fact dry-eyed. In the final scene she is presented stationary before a rolling backdrop to simulate flying, and here one sees her as the figurehead of a ship, a mythical icon, and that is consistent with the rest of her performance. Her hairstyle and dress (classic, for all occasions) put her again in the 'impeccable' category. She blazes with anger, which might please feminists, but what of passion and grief? This is Hillary, not Medea.
Alistair Elliot reduces Euripides to Rigg's size. He takes out mythological references, except for the minimum. Ino is cited as a parallel to Medea for killing her children, but the chorus reiterates the feature that distinguishes the two: 'But Medea is not mad' (p. 54). He also adds colloquialisms, such as Medea saying to Jason, 'Let's try to be friends.' She says this when she first meets him, not when she is feigning a reconciliation. Elliot can be felicitous in his modern turn of phrase: Medea describes a man's freedom, 'A man who's tired of what he gets at home / Goes out - and gives his heart a holiday' (p. 23). This is in contrast to a woman who is tied to one man: no holidays for her. The chorus also say words to the effect, 'First you lose the man from your bed, then you lose the bed,' to describe her exile after divorce. These words also do not appear in the printed text, so the play's text seems to be evolving as it is performed. This is Euripides as sitcom, reduced to the lowest colloquial denominator.
We moderns thrive on violence, so Kent does not disappoint us. He shows us bloodied screaming children just before they are killed by Medea. A woman behind me gasped, and started to sob (she did better than Rigg). These glimpses of violence, obviously meant to titillate modern sensibilities, seem to pervade British productions; we remember Don Taylor's Oedipus bleeding through a sheet that covers his head to signal that he has put out his eyes - but then we must see the face itself. So too, here, we are not spared the display of the dead bodies just because we have seen the nightmare premonition. The only thing we are deprived of is the dragon-drawn chariot (there must be some budgetary restrictions on a production made for export).
Medea has been variously interpreted, from Page's construction of her as a witch, to Knox's as a Homeric/Sophoclean hero. But she is a woman, first of all. This phrase occurs often in the play, and although Medea has access to magic, she is not primarily a witch. Even the concept of witch is a later development, and can be found in ancient Rome much more than fifth century Greece, although we should not forget that Circe is Medea's aunt: magic runs in the family. Seneca made Medea into a witch, but he also diminished her thereby. Her Euripidean humanness makes her truly frightening.
Medea's escape in the dragon-drawn chariot at the point where a god usually appeared in some contraption (deus ex machina) makes the case that she is more than human. But Euripides' genius is to make his gods human, and his human beings godlike. In earlier tragedy there was a clear distinction. In the Oresteia we would never confuse Orestes and Electra with Athena and Apollo. The Peloponnesian war that Euripides lived through was a time of chaos, as Thucydides clearly notes, even to the breakdown of the meaning of words (Peloponnesian War, 3. 81-82). Euripides broke another boundary, that between gods and men, making gods more fallible (e.g., the anger of Dionysus in the Bacchae , cf. Aphrodite and Artemis in Hippolytus) and humans more admirable, or godlike in the way that gods should be (e.g., Cadmus saying that the gods should be superior to man and Hippolytus forgiving his father, an act that Aphrodite and Artemis seem unable to achieve).
Medea is divine in having access to divine means of punishment, and escape, but she is human also. Her passion, thumos, is what is personified in her character. She claims it is stronger than her reason, and is what prevails in her decision (Med.1078-80). She is like Achilles, and her thumos is equivalent to his menis. She will not have her enemies laugh at her. She carries out the Homeric maxim, help your friends, and harm your enemies (cf. Odysseus' wish for Nausicaa, that she may have a husband who thinks as she does, so that with such strength in accord they will be a bane to their enemies and a delight to their friends, Od. 6. 180-85). Medea will help Aegeus, her friend, and she was deadly for her enemies. She went further than a Homeric hero, however: she harmed her friends, those closest to her, when she killed her children. (Later in Athens she would attempt to kill Aegeus' son Theseus to promote her own son Medus.) Euripides blurs lines, and in this final act Medea becomes monstrous. Nevertheless she is understandable, and for that reason she has become a symbol for so many societies protesting a tyrant or occupation by an imperial or fascistic power.
This production is admirable in having its chorus dressed in black garb, reminiscent of victimized women in many societies. The brown and black dress of the nurse is reminiscent of the women in Schindler's List: we think of Holocaust victims. The chorus women can remind us of Bosnians, Palestinian women, or Irish, the many Irish women who put on black to mourn their parents, their children and their mates destroyed in the deadly conflict that still rages in the North, a legacy of imperialism. Medea is a symbol for one who fights back, and is willing to pay the price, no matter what, as long as her enemies will not laugh at her. She is a freedom fighter, and a heroine. The chorus are those who do not make that choice. They are the victims. They show horror and sorrow during the messenger speech recording the off-stage deaths of Creon and his daughter. Rigg/Medea relishes every word, with an unmoving body, reclining as she faces the messenger (back to the audience), revealing her pleasure only in a finger tapped on her shoulder and her rapt attention.
The set by Davison consists of large coruscating panels which resemble the rusting plates on an old battleship. They are banged to emphasize moments and statements: Creon's order of banishment, or Medea's accusations. She bangs the plates loudly, Jason only hits them lightly as he lists his defenses; perhaps he realizes how hollow they are by comparison with Medea's claims. The panels clang open and shut, as if they formed the walls of a giant prison. They are reminiscent of the huge clanging doors in Don Taylor's BBC production of Antigone. Medea is first seen in the alcove formed by one, and in the final climactic scene where she flies off with her children's bodies, she is revealed by the plates crashing down. This is a prison escape to end all escapes. Comparable to No Escape, with its challenging prison and violence, we see our heroine victorious, having been hopeless at the beginning. Euripides ends this play as he did the Bacchae, Helen, Alcestisand Andromache, with the formula that things have turned out differently from what we would expect. These are all plays about someone who is weak at the beginning but gains strength at the end; these are plays where the victim becomes victimizer.
Euripides in this play mixes earth, air, fire and water, as if Medea were the fifth element. She is a type of chthonic goddess: she crossed water to come to Greece, burns the princess with her fire, and escapes in the air. The play begins and ends with birds that shriek, comparable to Mnouchkine's dogs that ended the acts of Les Atrides, or the ominous birds in Cacoyannis' Trojan Trilogy. Medea flies like a bird at the end. Water is made visible by a pool on the stage, and at times its ripples are projected onto the brazen walls. Medea and the chorus wash their hands in it. The women have access to this purification. We hear of the fire in the messenger's speech. And Elliot's Medea tells Aegeus to 'Swear by this dust of Earth, by Helios the sun' (p. 38), translating Euripides' 'Swear by the plain of Earth, and Helios' (Med. 746). Earth, air, fire and water, are well represented in this production.
It is also obvious that Kent has seen Dream of Passion, Dassin's reworking of the Medea myth, and also Pasolini's Medea, or has simply made the same choices. Medea's sanity or insanity is a big issue in the former film, so this play is clear about Medea being sane. The chorus reiterate it with anaphoric overkill. Pasolini dresses the children in white and crowns them with a wreath (also Iphigenia in Cacoyannis' film is so attired in victim chic), and Kent does this.
Kent makes other obeisances to the mod. He has Jason and the messenger appear with nearly shaved heads, but sporting pony tales in back. They could be drug dealers. Creon and Aegeus have more conventional hairstyles. I can understand giving Jason a bit of stylish punk, a touch of the eternal egoistic adolescent, but why the messenger?
Medea is one of the great plays in the classical repertoire. The elemental passion of a Medea is pitted against the civilized demands of a Jason. Euripides has his Medea confront Jason, opposing a barbarian to someone 'civilized.' The civilized Jason is more barbaric in his emotional callousness than the barbarian Medea, but by the end of the play she exacts a barbaric penalty. The oppressor cannot oppress forever. Lessons are learned and tables are turned (see Frantz Fanon's study of this phenomenon in The Wretched of the Earth, Edward Said's in his Culture and Imperialism). Brendan Kennelly uses Medea as a symbol for Ireland. Pasolini in his film pointed out the universals behind the myth, showing us woman as a conduit to the gods and a source of the earth's fertility, stable and unmoving, vs. man the mover, the traveler, an opportunistic hunter, a capitalist and a thankless adolescent who does not realize his dependence on mother. Others who have reworked this play tap into some of its elemental power. Medea's elemental tragic messages are elided in Kent's production which can be called the Masterpiece Theatre Medea. One cannot applaud Diana Rigg for a passionate performance, particularly if one has seen Judith Anderson, or Irene Papas. Rigg is terminally stylish. The barbarian Medea has been civilized. Perhaps she stayed too long in London.
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University of California, San Diego
Marianne McDonald's assessment of Rigg's acting still stands in spite of the fact that she won the Tony award for Leading Actress.