MEDEA, OR THE MYTH OF THE MURDEROUS (M)OTHER
Freely adapted by the cast from Euripides' Medea
Presented by Jazzart Dance Theatre in association with Magnet Theatre
and the Cape Performing Arts Board
Directed by Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek
Choreographed by Alfred Hinkel
Design by Craig Leo
October 19 - November 5 1994
Nico Arena, Cape Town, South Africa
Reviewed by Margaret Mezzabotta
This multilingual presentation of the Medea myth, performed by a talented multiracial cast of professional actors and dancers, fully deserved the acclaim it received during its recent run. Using movements influenced by a variety of dance traditions, to the accompaniment of music drawn from several cultures, the performers' interpretation of the story was as much physical as vocal. Thanks to the intelligent re-creation by cast and directors of the basic plot of Euripides' Medea, the age-old themes of the power of sexual passion, the antagonisms between colonisers and the colonised, male and female, the powerful and the powerless, and the tragic consequences of these unequal conflicts for society's helpless innocents were rendered contemporary for an audience to whom racial bigotry, gender inequality and revenge murders (whether for political or domestic motives) are real issues.
The performance text was the collective creation of the whole cast, which had first studied translations of Euripides' play and had spent three weeks improvising their own versions of the scenes of the original Greek play. They then broke for five weeks, during which time director Mark Fleishman composed a script from the workshopped improvisations. Very little of Euripides' original dialogue was preserved intact in the resultant text; a few lines and arguments from the first two Euripidean meetings between Medea and Jason were combined for part of a single debate scene towards the end of the reworked play, but the rest was new. Both the rewriting of the text and the transformation of the play's mythic antecedents from verbal allusions to visual enactments made the play and its background intelligible to the modern South African audience, most of whom were untutored in Greek mythology. Approximately half the playing time of an hour and forty minutes was devoted to the dramatisation, in the form of flashbacks, of the events occurring before the beginning of Euripides' version and familiar to the fifth-century Athenian audience: Jason's quest in search of the golden fleece in order to inherit his father's kingdom, his arrival and reception in Colchis, his completion of the tasks set him by Aeetes through the magical assistance provided by Medea, the escape with the fleece and the killing of Medea's brother Apsyrtus, the birth of the children, the return to Iolchos and the expulsion of Jason and Medea after the murder of Pelias, and their eventual residence in Corinth.
The venue, the Nico Arena, provides raked, raised seating for 120 spectators, overlooking a rectangular stage. The entire stage area was covered over with a considerable depth of sand, to suggest a beach, and was backed by a high wall of grey concrete bricks. A steel garage door, built into the centre of the wall at ground level, was surmounted by an open triangular space, the apex of which extended to the top of the wall. A window, perhaps a metre square, had been cut into the upper left-hand quadrant of the wall, drawing attention to itself by the disturbingly asymmetrical effect it created. Subdued lighting dimly illuminated the set. A tape-recording of waves beating repetitively, predictably and peacefully against the shore played over the sound system while the audience entered the darkened auditorium to take their seats. Gradually one became aware of two small boys kneeling at one side of the sand-covered stage, absorbed in the construction, demolition and reconstruction of a sandcastle. They wore short grey pants and white shirts, the standard uniform of South African schoolboys.
The play 'began' with a spotlight revealing Medea (Bo Petersen) sitting on the sand, wearing a brown wig styled in a fashionable pageboy bob and a coffee-coloured slip. In an opening monologue she related how Pelias had killed his brother Aeson, king of Thessaly, and usurped his throne and how Jason, Aeson's son, had claimed his inheritance and had been sent by Pelias to Colchis in search of the golden fleece. At this point the chorus of eight trenchcoated, bovver- booted dancers (played by the Jazzart company), swaggered into the acting area representing citizens of Corinth, as two lounge-suited male figures, one kneeling, (Jason, played by Kurt Wuestmann) and one standing, (Creon, played by Jay Pather, who also took the roles of Aeetes and Apsyrtus), appeared in the triangular space above the garage door, in a tableau depicting offered and accepted homage. Creon, characterised in this production as a cruel tyrant, announced his daughter's marriage to Jason and sentenced Medea to exile, granting her pleas for a day's respite on condition that she leave the children behind in Corinth. As Medea reeled in anguish at the double blow of her divorce and banishment, the chorus indulged in a frenzy of orgiastic dancing and simulated copulation in which Medea's recumbent form was repeatedly violated.
In the next scene, the dreadlocked nurse, (Dawn Langdown), wearing tribal costume to mark her as a Colchian, cradled the distraught Medea in her lap and, speaking the homely Afrikaans dialect of the Cape Flats (a region of sub-economic urban sprawl housing large populations of 'Coloured' people), urged Medea to regain her dignity and her cultural identity as a Colchian. Gently the nurse removed Medea's 'civilised' wig, revealing her underlying 'Colchian' leopard- spotted crew-cut, hung an amulet round her neck and bedecked her with a tribal headdress, thereby effecting a transition to several flashback scenes recalling the past events that had led to Medea's present predicament. To the beat of African drums, the chorus transformed themselves into Colchians by stripping off their trench coats to reveal simple loin cloths. In a topographical and chronological shift to the land of Colchis before Jason's arrival, the chorus and Aeetes, Medea's father, (Jay Pather), circled round each other in an eye-catching display of movements that were a blend of African and Indian dance forms. The fleece, the object of Jason's desires, was worn by Aeetes as a kind of sleeveless coat. Crowned with a headdress of porcupine quills, Aeetes communicated with the chorus in the Tamil language. A Colchian messenger, (Heinrich Reisenhofer, who also played an old blind man and Aegeus), burst in to warn of the arrival of strangers. As the deafening noise of whirring helicopter blades filled the auditorium, Jason was winched down from the roof-beams like an invading paratrooper. Through the medium of mime and dance accompanied by pulsating jazz music and the ululations of the chorus, Jason was made to understand the tasks that had to be fulfilled before the fleece could be his, observed all the while by the love-struck Medea, hovering at the edge of the action. Having accepted Aeetes' challenge, he collapsed on to the sand, to be revived by Medea. Visibly torn between her love for the handsome stranger and her duty to her father, Medea was finally persuaded to use her magical skills to help Jason by his sweet-voiced promise:`If you help me I will make you my wife!' A magnificent sequence mimed the anointing of Jason, his yoking of the bulls and the sowing of the dragon's teeth, while the chorus sang a Xhosa song with polyphonic harmony to the accompaniment of drums and marimbas. Medea took the fleece from Aeetes and, with a climactic gesture, handed it over to Jason.
Following the pantomimic dancing which portrayed the escape in the Argo, the shameful episode of Apsyrtus' murder was recreated. Then, on board the Argo, Jason and Medea writhed in an ecstasy of sexual passion communicated by erotic movements and sensual music, culminating in the birth of the two children. Jason enfolded Medea and sons in a warm embrace, briefly presenting an image of the perfect family that was to be shattered on their return to Greece. Arriving in Iolchos, Medea attempted to assume a Greek identity at Jason's urging by donning sandals and a wig which concealed her own close-cropped, leopard-dyed hair. But her struggles to assimilate were shown to be futile as an old blind man (Heinrich Reisenhofer) warned Jason of the anti-barbarian feeling of the local Greeks towards foreigners who `take our jobs, muddle our language, seduce our sons', and of the mockery to which their `half-savage' children would be subjected. Medea killed Pelias, and she and Jason were driven out of Iolchos and finally took refuge in Corinth.
The scene returned to Corinth, with a desperate Medea, surrounded by packing cases, using her cellular phone to call her lawyer, Aegeus, (Heinrich Reisenhofer) for advice. Poised above her in the triangular space in the back wall, Aegeus coolly informed her that as an alien, her marriage had no legal status. She should sell her shares, close her bank accounts; apart from a small allowance, all their joint property would revert to Jason.
Accompanied by the nurse, Medea tracked Jason down to a noisy Corinthian disco at his wedding party. Pushing her away, he told her that he could not become king while married to her; that as king, he would secure their children's future in Corinth. Medea retorted that far from reaping the benefits of Greek culture, they would be despised and treated like slaves. Outlined in the triangular inset in the wall, Creon commanded Medea to hand over the fleece she took from Pelias so that he could enjoy the power it brought, in return for allowing the children, who were to stay in Corinth, to bid her farewell. Medea agreed, on condition that she first be allowed to present `a modest gift' to Creon's daughter, Jason's new bride.
The penultimate scene began with Medea and the nurse running to the beach to dig the fleece out from its hiding place in the sand. The female members of the chorus sang and danced to the pounding rhythm of drum beats as Medea cast spells, stripping off her `Greek' wig and putting the fleece on her own shoulders. A shimmering golden dress was carried offstage by the nurse to be given to Creon's daughter; after a short pause, the nurse returned, describing in Afrikaans the bride's beauty as she danced in the dress, and the horror of the fiery death that it dealt to the girl and her father. At the end of her speech the children entered quietly; with infinite tenderness, Medea gently divested them of their `civilised' clothing, their white shirts and grey shorts, leaving them in their undergarments, `Colchian' loin cloths. Without a word, she took them each by the hand and led them off the stage. Left alone in the spotlight, the nurse sank down slowly on to the sand as she sang a Xhosa lament.
Suddenly Medea reentered from the wings, resplendent in a magnificent orange robe and adorned with a tribal headdress and necklaces. Jumping on to the backs of two `Colchians' who had remained in the background, she grasped some handholds fixed high up in the wall and pulled herself up into the square opening, where she crouched, wordlessly waiting and watching. Then, with a harsh metallic roar and to a crescendo of drum beats, the garage door was rolled up to disgorge Jason, sword in hand, and the remaining members of the chorus, once more costumed as Corinthians. In vain Jason attempted to scale the wall to kill Medea, venting his vengeful fury instead on the mocking nurse. As he rushed to and fro over the sand in a frenzy of frustrated wrath, he was brought to a halt by the sight of the children's discarded clothing. Picking them up, he turned back to Medea, shrieking 'Where are the children?' Beyond his reach, the infanticidal Medea stared down at him impassively. Clutching the boys' garments, he wheeled round to face the audience, sinking to his knees as realisation dawned; and at that precise moment, to the triumphant strains of Handel's coronation anthem Zadok the priest, a crown was placed upon his head.
This production presented Medea in a sympathetic light, depicting her first as the victim of her own sexual passion for Jason, whereby her earlier crimes - the betrayal of her father and the murders of Apsyrtus and Pelias - were viewed as visceral reactions to threats of separation from Jason. As the play progressed, her outsider status in Greek society and the cynical disregard for her human dignity displayed by the Greek characters, particularly by the ambitious Jason, attracted increasing sympathy. In the end, traumatised, alienated and cornered, she reverted to her barbarian origins and, lashing out at her oppressors in two acts of murderous vengeance, confirmed the deepest fears of the 'civilised' community which had maltreated her.
The performance of all the players was outstanding. It was clear that through the act of recreating the text, they had internalised the characters they played. As a theatrical document of the 'New' South Africa, the production made an excitingly positive statement. The multicultural fusion of different dance forms, languages and musical modes succeeded in drawing the audience into an intensely moving dramatic experience in which the tragic essence of Euripides' Medea was memorably communicated.
Margaret Mezzabotta - 1946-2000.
Margaret was a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cape Town.