translated and directed by David Stuttard
performed by the Actors of Dionysus
28 October-16 November, 1996
Turtle Key Arts Centre
74A Farm Lane
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
It is often the case in Greek tragedy, and particularly in Euripides, that the women come off better than the men. While they rarely escape being ground back down into what the men think of as their proper place, they are usually stronger, nobler, more honorable, and more sympathetic than their male counterparts. This fairly commonplace observation is even more true of the Greek tragedies performed by the Actors of Dionysus: leading lady and joint artistic director Tamsin Shasha has yet to play opposite a man who is her equal as an actor. Last year her maternally tender Jocasta had to contend with an Oedipus who started at the top of his range and continued too far over the top, to the great annoyance of both the audience and his fellow players. This year Shasha gives us a thoroughly realized Medea and is sadly let down by Steven Yule's cipher of a Jason.
The Actors of Dionysus are traveling players. After a mere two weeks of rehearsals, they set out on an exhaustive itinerary of appearances at secondary schools throughout England and Scotland, coming to rest for a few weeks at a London venue. This year, for the first time, they landed at the Turtle Key Arts Centre, a barn like brick building with A-frame roof beams and skylights, a spacious all-white interior which acts as a permanent cyclorama, and enough room for a full chorus to move in. (The constraints of touring, however, mean that AOD never uses a full chorus.) By the last night of their performance there, the cast has adapted to this unusual playing space, which works well for them.
Medea's house is a tent like construction of gauzy white cloth, will bells hung on either side of the doorway and fretwork windows projected onto the sides. Before it a Persian rug is spread, on which lies a tumbled wooden bench. The candles, wine service, and small properties continue this Near Eastern feel. The Constantinople of last year's Oedipus has become Istanbul, or perhaps Damascus. Alex Wheeler, in ochre yellow harem pants and turban, is too young to be plausible as Medea's wet-nurse; the right age to have performed the same service for Medea's children. She is intense, excitable, passionate, and very anxious on behalf of her mistress, tidying up the scattered fruits and flowers as she gives her initial long speech, snuffing the candles on the tall iron stand, righting the bench on the carpet.
Instead of leaving the stage after her scene with the Paidagogos (David Love in a quasi-academic black cap and gown), Wheeler remains on stage to play the more sympathetic half of the chorus. Her opposite, rehearsed in quickly when Hannah Clayton took ill, is a woman with long tilted eyes and a cool, inscrutable expression, with the profile of an Achaemenid king. Although she is supposedly a woman of Corinth, she is dressed exactly as the Nurse is, with the addition of a heavy felt waistcoat. This gives some unity to the chorus but is itself a bit confusing: there is nothing to distinguish the Colchian slave from the Corinthian citizen. Later, however, the costuming decision makes explicit sense, allowing her to act as the messenger from Creon's palace. She maintains throughout a consistent and distinctive personality, a distance from Medea which grows into horror, alienation, fear. Hers are the lines in which the chorus tries to prevent the slaughter of the children. The two are not in any way the traditional chorus of tragedy, but are well-developed speaking characters whose lines happen to be Euripides' lyrics adapted for speech.
The children themselves, a pair of boys perhaps nine or ten years of age, are disappointingly affectless and oblivious. No one tries to prevent them hearing anything, but they ignore the tensions around them. No child I have ever met is oblivious to the fear and anger of adults, particularly when those adults are his or her parents. Throughout the play they seemed to be reluctantly suffering Jason, Medea, and the Nurse to embrace them, to worry for them. The adults were certainly in no danger of being upstaged.
Medea's offstage cries were long, loud, anguished, and eloquent--but seemed somehow too abrupt. They did, however, serve to provide a vivid contrast with the woman who finally emerged, pale and strained, speaking quietly in a brittle tone and then all but breaking down. Tamsin Shasha gave us a genuinely broken-hearted Medea, a surprise after all the build-up about her wildness and the danger she presents to all around her, and a surprise to anyone who remembers Medea primarily for the strength of her anger. This woman, as we first see her in her high-waisted white dress with its bodice of teardrop pearls, could be someone we know, any woman whose husband has left her, aching with rejection, still half in denial. Ferocity bursts through in gasps which leave her shaking, silent, quieter. She manages, often, a voice of cool rationality, non-threatening, but this is a papering-over of her pain, her passion, her bitterness, and her determination that her enemies will never laugh at her. She looks, often, the picture of innocence and helplessness, not much taller than her children, very fragile in contrast to Creon, Jason, Aegeus. All of the men in the play wear black, an unsubtle, if effective, way for the director to show where he thinks our sympathies should lie.
David Love is far from typecast for the role of Creon; hardness and suspicion do not seem to come easily to him. Euripides' Creon does not need to be evil, but he does need to be implacable, forceful, concerned for his city to the exclusion of compassion for others. Love plays the Corinthian king as a measured man, not a villain, perceptive enough to see that Medea is dangerous to him and to Corinth. He is not quite putty in Medea's hands, and seems more embarrassed than moved when she leaps from rhetoric to supplication and clings to him. Yet he grants her her final day, and when he is gone she laughs, assuring us that she was only pretending to that desperation. The lady doth protest too much, methinks--it is far easier to believe of this Medea that she needs that one day enough to beg for it, to put aside pride in search of revenge, surprisingly easy to believe that she, like any other wife, fears losing her husband to a younger woman.
That revenge possesses her as she contemplates the right means for exacting it, kneeling in a square of blue-white light, arching her back, digging her hands into the ground. And then she sings, sweet wailing tones, eerily peaceful and gentle, while the chorus chants its words over her song until Jason enters abruptly, breaking the reverie.
The first problem with Steven Yule's Jason is that he is not sexy. We have heard a great deal so far about how lust--as David Stuttard baldly and accurately translates eros--has driven Medea to betray her father and homeland, to murder members of her family and Jason's. Yule does not give us arrogance, grace, strength, the aura of power, or any of the other qualities which can make a plain-featured man sexually attractive and without which a handsome one might as well be a mannequin. Nor does he show any sign of being attracted to Medea, though seduction is clearly among her magic, as we have seen in her dealings with Creon. His words fall like bricks, loud but without emotion behind them.
Shasha, on the other hand, vibrates with hurt and hatred, hurling her words, her curses, vulnerable and still yearning. She has dug into the complexity of the situation and shows us the genuinely sexual roots of Medea's jealousy. Cool with Creon, she lets anger get the best of her when confronted by her husband. It is easy to see the Jason she needs, the appropriate counterpart: superior, amused, condescending, deliberately goading Medea into an incoherent (and occasionally too shrill) rage, sharply aware of her continuing desire for him and willing to use that against her, with the innocent self-righteousness of a man who has always subscribed to double standards.
Stuttard's translation betrays its essentially scholarly nature once or twice during this scene. 'Worst of men!' is certainly an accurate rendering of pankakiste, but it sounds insufficiently forceful. While there are few real clangers, the translation is not the memorable work of poetry which Euripides' original was. It is, on the whole, unobtrusive, conveying the sense in a neutrally modern idiom, with no distracting frills or artificial stylizations. It is made to work well in the performance, and potential directors may wish to investigate it for that purpose, and quite useful to anyone studying the play in Greek, but would not be recommended reading on its own, as a work of literature. It is doubtful that Steven Yule would have sounded any better speaking different words, however.
Medea has better material to work with in Aegeus, the king of Athens and her rescuer. This is the best of David Love's three performances and his concern for his friend (and how has Medea come to know him?) is genuine and sincere, if slightly baffled. Shasha let seductive tones creep into her voice as she promised Aegeus that if she came to Athens she would guarantee he had children, leaving us, and him, to infer that the children might be hers. Between them they make it clear that a man's need for children to inherit his land and title makes him vulnerable indeed to persuasion, to manipulation. Medea's power over others lies in her sexuality, her womanhood, her ability to provide or withhold children--the very power men have always feared and envied most in women. We do not find Jason very convincing when he says he wanted to ensure a future for his children by marrying Creon's daughter, but we can realize, seeing Aegeus, that what Jason said may have been true, that even a father who does not show affection may be deeply wounded by the loss of a child.
When Aegeus has gone, the lights go down and Medea sings again as she drips wax onto an effigy over the chest which holds the garment meant for Creon's daughter, the fatally poisoned gift. The ritual ends quite abruptly as Jason enters again. To him, too, she speaks seductively, softly, and with a most uncharacteristic meekness which she did not display even to Creon--enough to make a man suspicious, if he knows her. Jason does appear to be suspicious, reluctant to believe in this change of heart. But should he withdraw so jerkily from his wife's advances? It seems clear that his motive for marriage is not in fact lust, but desire for his own advancement and safety, in which case he should remain sexually attracted to Medea. Medea needs to have absolute control over him by the end of this scene, to have fooled him as thoroughly as Klytaimnestra does Agamemnon before she leads him in to his death. As Euripides wrote him, Jason is a man of great vanity and one who believes his arguments should have persuaded Medea. He is too arrogant to be properly suspicious. More than seduced, he should be all but hypnotized. Steven Yule blundered through with no real show of relief that Medea had seen what he thinks of as reason, or joy at being reconciled, or either pleasure or displeasure at the idea that his children might be allowed to stay with him. It makes his ultimate suffering and the energy he manages to put into the last scene far less plausible.
The cool-eyed chorus member follows the children and their fatal gifts, then returns in disarray, turban torn off her head, unexpectedly short hair flying about, plainly horrified and even revolted as Medea asks her to tell the story at length. She is perfectly fitted, perfectly motivated, for the choral section afterwards. 'Don't do it!' she cries, pleads. Medea, too, doubts, hesitates, her dilemma obviously real, her believability slipping only a little as her impulse, her passion overwhelms what she knows is right. The tension crackles; the boys themselves are remarkably oblivious to what their mother is saying, to either her pain or her possession. They do not try to avoid her embrace, nor cling to her, nor reflect their inevitable confusion, and so deprive the scene of that one further level of intensity.
The children do not cry out as they die behind the cloth draperies of the door which Medea has unbound to enclose herself in the palace. There is no time: while the chorus laments what she has been brought to, Medea herself is busy setting up a ladder and draping a crimson velvet robe over her shoulders, preparing for her ascent ex machina. Jason enters showing the first urgency he has so far displayed, shouting, but delivering his lines as if he did not quite understand them and was all too conscious of their being part of a memorized script. A histrionic thunderclap; a deep hum; a light blazing through a revolving gobo behind the draperies. Medea appears abruptly amid billowing artificial smoke which spreads outward into the audience, bringing a strange cold tang with it. Jason falls all too theatrically backwards over the bench; the two women of the chorus are likewise 'blown' flat onto their backs. And so begins the long final exchange between husband and wife, Medea now aloof and implacable. The final choral tag is excised, and the play ends in darkness with a too-sharp cessation of the amplified sound, jolting us all into temporary confusion and delaying applause.
Ex machina entrances are always difficult to handle. There is a need to make Medea superhuman, or inhuman, in this scene, and a need for spectacle not seen before in the play, for something worth the buildup. Nevertheless I think this ending was overdone, and not just because of Jason's overly stagey fall. Smoother transitions in the sound cues would have helped, and perhaps a lower level of sound overall, because shouting never does Euripides' lines any good. Subtlety of characterization need not be obliterated entirely even when Medea is done deceiving and claims her full unearthly power, but there was no room for richly textured acting and no chance given for the audience to reflect in the aftermath of Medea's departure. Like the translation, the ending of the play worked just barely well enough. It would have been worth seeing the production for Shasha's performance alone. The Actors of Dionysus are undeniably getting better with experience, and future performances should not be missed.
University of Warwick
(The Actors of Dionysus Spring 1997 tour of Euripides' Electra will begin in February and conclude at the London Festival of Greek Drama. Details will be available on Didaskalia's Watch This Space page.)