Reviewed by C.W. Marshall
Magic Owl's Medea showed how effective masks can be in modern productions of Greek plays. The performance was above average in many respects, but it is the masks that remain in the imaginations of the audience long after the show is finished.
The set's opening tableau was largely unremarkable: four small steps leading to a central double door, evoking traditional notions of what was on the fifth-century stage. Two glowing red pillars in the back corners of the black stage seemed innocuous, but took on some thematic meaning as they switched colours to green midway through the show. Similarly, the twenty seconds of music broadcast as the play opened was ineffective as such, but became more fully integrated as the show progressed. I am not always convinced of the benefits of echoing Greek scene-setting in this way, especially as it so often overshadows similarly restricted acting styles. That proved not to be a problem in this production, fortunately, as was made clear in the opening moments of the performance. An unmasked individual walked on stage (we later discover this is the Chorus) and sang Medea's name (and therefore the play's title) twice, drawing out the vowels, and drawing the audience into the play's world.
The distinctive ability of Yvonne Weber, creator of the 3/4 masks, was immediately evident. The shadows over the green face of the Nurse (Mara Coward) run very deep, corresponding to the grief and concern she expresses in the prologue. The mask of the Tutor (Chris Robson, in the first of three roles), on the other hand, is much lighter in expression, with a high brow and a three-inch upturned comic nose. The mask is also green. The lighting was designed to create stark shadow on all the masks throughout the show, perhaps intended to evoke gargoyles. It moved regularly around the stage (the characters at times were lit from the top, the wings, and the front), but the light almost always came from a single point.
Creon's mask (worn by Chris Robson in his second role) had a huge forehead, almost doubling the length of his face, and jutted forward, reminiscent perhaps of super-intelligent aliens in science fiction of the fifties. The distortion clearly was not trying to evoke a naturalistic response, and as the actor's mouth was still visible, the integration of this head with the actor's torso was very easy for the audience's eye to accomplish. Every character had a green head, except for Medea, whose contrasting red mask unambiguously isolated her as an outsider. Medea had a deep-set V-shaped brow and lacked the softer, bulbous features of the green masks. The height of her face was not as distorted as was that of the characters in the green masks, particularly the aristocratic males.
Some semiotic value was clearly being represented here. My first thought was that the colour split was simply representing a division of Greek and barbarian. This supposition was apparently confirmed by the half-and-half colouring on the children, their heads not especially distorted in shape. The top halves of their masks were red: were they 'of their mother's mind,' or were they saved from the disfiguring effects of aristocratic Greek values?
Either way, this polarization only became problematic when Robson returned as Aigeus. His visage, a yellow-gold head without an exaggerated forehead, was meant to convey meaning of some sort. Is it necessary to recast the value of the the green? Perhaps green symbolized merely the polis of Corinth. In that case, Jason's face (oversize head, strikingly framed by a mane of blue and gold, making Jason appear the most 'barbaric' of all the characters) reflects his full acceptance of his new marriage, his complete acculturization to his new home, his absolute and irreconsilable distance from Medea. Either this, or Aigeus is not even considered a human agent, but rather is perceived as a gift from the gods to Medea. This dialectic suggests that the colours are reflections of Medea's perspective, a nice vizualization of an idea.
The only person who did not benefit from the brutal lighting and its enhancement of the masks was the Chorus (Wendy Jane Bollard), who remained unmasked, alternately speaking and singing. The synthesized soundscape composed by Matthew Gray (who also played one of Medea's children, and the Messenger) carried anonymous East Asian influences across the set to underscore the songs. The Chorus remained out of the way during the episodes, standing at the edge of the stage. It was unfortunate that she did appear to be 'at the edge of the stage' rather than 'just outside the action', as one continually was left feeling the Chorus did not belong, and was being kept there pro forma. When Bollard did interact with Medea (a strong performance from Catherine Williams), however, there was quite close contact, appropriate for the intimate venue.
Podlecki's quite literal translation worked well. The dialogue shone particularly in Jason's speech in the agon where Jason (Jason Grey-Stanford) fully captured the legalistic evasiveness required. The director did not need to keep Medea's reference to Aigeus'beard in the text when the actor's mask was not bearded; most audiences cannot be expected to understand the conventions of hiketeia.
Levy's direction was strong, however, especially in integrating the masks. I especially liked the moment when the block tower which was being built by the children collapsed at the mention of the new marriage. (Jason wore a wedding ring, Medea did not; interesting, though a little obscure.) Direction did however falter occasionally. The shadow-play on the backlit transluscent walls of the skene during Medea's offstage lines in the prologue was ineffective and betrayed a lack of trust that the text would carry the scene. The messenger delivered his speech very much as a set piece, and despite his movement seemed to be largely oblivious to Medea's quite commanding presence. Medea's reaction to Creon's death was a cackle of delight, an inappropriate laugh which caused the audience to laugh inappropriately as well.
Perhaps most disappointing was the fact that gestures (e.g. Medea falling at Creon's knees) were consistently being performed after the text indicated them. Since Greek plays are so explicit in verbalizing stage directions, a performance should anticipate words with actions. An audience can make much better sense of a character saying 'here comes someone' if that character is already in sight; using such a line as a cue for entry makes the line look like a cue for entry and nothing more.
The final scene poses problems for any director and producer of Medea, and these problems are complicated by the resources presented by most black-box theatres. Helios' power was here demystified considerably, represented by a golden crest worn by Medea rather than a spectacular chariot. This could have worked, but only if Jason had been much more cowed by the imbalance in power which that crest indicated. As it was, he and Medea appeared to be struggling equals. A tension remained at the end of the play which should not exist. Medea, for whatever reason, has won.
C. W. Marshall
(C. W. Marshall is a member of the APA Committee for the Performance of Classical Texts.)