Tragedy in the Pit

Euripides' Medea
Directed by Toph Marshall and Martin Boyne

February 8-13, 1996

The Pit
Lady Eton College
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario

Reviewed by Ian Storey

For three years now the Classics Drama Group at Trent University has in the winter term mounted a production of a tragedy by Euripides. This year's Medea proved a worthy successor indeed to the previous productions of Hippolytos (1994) and Elektra (1995) and played to nearly 300 spectators in a run of five nights in early February.

The original idea of performing a play in translation using undergraduates in the Classics Department was that of Martin Boyne, a part-time instructor in the Department, who directed the productions of Hippolytos and Elektra with considerable success. This year he was assisted as co-director by C.W. (Toph) Marshall, a sessional appointment with the department who has had considerable experience and success in translating and mounting ancient dramas in various parts of Canada. Although this year's Medea is my prime concern, I shall bring something of the other productions into my discussion.

What makes the Classics Drama Group's production unusual is the physical space that Martin Boyne selected and adapted for ancient tragedy. The 'pit' of the title is a sunken common room at Lady Eaton College in which the drama was played. I am unable to provide a diagram; thus you are asked (in good prologue fashion) to imagine the following:

The overall effect of this space was to add immediacy to the performances, with the audience so closely and intimately exposed to the action. In the production of Elektra the presence of swords of Orestes, Pylades, and the Messenger provided an added thrill for those in the 'front rows'; in Hippolytos one part of a bench on the north-east wall became Phaidra's resting-place in her first scene. Phaidra's agonies, Elektra's complaints, and Medea's self-struggle were immediate and involving. The square floor of the 'pit' became as vital an area as any raised stage, and conveyed something of the sense of looking down at the action that the 5th-century Athenian audience must have taken for granted.

In keeping with both the simplicity of this space and with the unembellished nature of Greek tragedy, costumes, props, and 'special effects' were kept to a minimum. Music was used sparingly. Hippolytos opened with taped 'ancient Greek music' which set the mood tolerably well, but much more clever was the playing of Simon and Garfunkel's 'Mrs Robinson' at the end which marked quite nicely the 'Potiphar's Wife' theme of which both Hippolytos and 'The Graduate' are inversions. Elektra opened rather incongruously with the opening movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony ('awakenings of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country'), hardly a harbinger of what was to come, but de Falla's 'Ritual Fire Music' from El Amor Brujo covered the off-stage murder of Klytaimestra in chilling fashion. Medea had only a flautist playing softly while the two boys played quietly in the corner before their nurse.

The Group has tried a variety of approaches to costumes. With Hippolytos they tried for a 'period effect', with cloaks and long robes that evoked a modern conception of ancient Greek dress. But what marked that production was the use of white half-masks which did not interfere with vocal delivery and were remarkably effective in creating a general or elevated level of experience. It was the physical discomfort of the actors in wearing these for any length of time, not the dramatic effects created, that caused them not be used in subsequent productions.

Elektra was presented as a dark, modernist and iconoclastic drama; hence the lack of masks, and costumes with a modern flavour. Orestes and Pylades entered in heavy duffle-coats suitable for travellers. Klytaimestra's elegance contrasted nicely with Elektra's poor state--but here her 'rags' were hardly that. The messenger (whose scene incidentally stole the show) was dressed like an Italian waiter, but the most striking effect was realized by the Dioskouroi in dark double-breasted suits and dark glasses like junior Mafiosi, which fit well with the black negativism which pervades the last scene of Elektra. Medea was temporally neutral, with no definite ancient or modern flavour; one did note the good contrast between Medea's long 'oriental' robes and Jason's 'modern' dress.

Three aspects of Boyne and Marshall's Medea deserve special mention. First was their decision to play Aigeus for semi-comic effect--given the emotional fireworks that were to follow, this turned out to be a wise idea. The original Athenian audience of 431 BCE may not have appreciated the portrayal of Aigeus as something of a country-bumpkin, but Jake Rubin played Aigeus as the perfect foil to Medea's clever woman, mixing horror and sympathy for Medea's plight with his incomprehension of the oracle (clear to everyone else in the house) and respect for Medea's sophia. The Greek practice of repeating a question in stichomythia became a perfect expression of his mental shortcomings (' M: Why have you come here? A: Why have I come here...?').

The second commendation must go to Toph Marshall's handling of the chorus. Previous productions had not given the chorus much to do. Hippolytos had an essentially ornamental chorus of 3 defined individuals, stationed mainly on the north rising staircase but with little to do with the piece. Elektra had a quartet that did interact with Elektra (and later with Klytaimestra), but the very nature of that play makes much chorus-work impossible. But in Medea the chorus was neither a solid and detached single entity (the infamous 'ideal spectator') nor an assemblage of well-defined individuals. Marshall created a quintet (two of whom had had lead roles in the previous year's Elektra) that divided the chorus text not into individual sentences (thereby establishing a persona for each), but into fragments and phrases - no individual thus had a consistent identity and the choral whole attained a single, if fluid, identity.

There were times when the chorus dominated the drama and threatened to take back the play from the actors. In his recent translation of Aeschylus' Oresteia Michael Ewans complained about modern attempts to render the chorus appropriately and effectively; he should have been in the Pit for this year's Medea. One nice touch was to have the chorus-members seated at the end of the couches at the beginning and then rise to join the action; it was as if the audience itself was coming to Medea's aid.

But the most memorable impression was that left by the scenes between Medea and Jason; the Trent production certainly caused me to re-think my view of the play, for Jason has three scenes with Medea, and although he is not a Kreon to an Antigone, he is more than just another of the male foils for Medea in this play. Kim O'Hearn gave us a fine Medea, making her way with confidence through the various scenes and moods that Medea must adopt, but saving a special force for her scenes with Jason. Dressed in a robe that suggested well her Eastern origins, she conveyed the foreignness and the power that the original Medea must have had.

But it was the final scene that gripped the audience. Rather than attempt a flying chariot complete with bodies of children, the production adopted a bold solution to the final scene, one that I questioned at first, but which succeeded with its raw power. Medea was 'centre-stage', in the middle of the open square with a single red spotlight immediately above her; Jason (Mike Brown) stood in the higher (west) gallery, looking, in his flowing white shirt under the blue-white spotlight, like Luke Skywalker in 'Star Wars'. The exchange between grieving father/husband and vengeful mother/witch was electric with each character totally in control of the text and his or her presentation. At the end the chorus pronounced the tag, the lights were extinguished, and the audience was finally able to breathe. This was drama of very high quality. Aristotle would have approved--this audience certainly did.

A brief word about two other members of the cast. The sons of Medea and Jason were two 7th-grade students (Craig Gear and Justin O'Leary) from a local public school, who spent most of their time on stage playing a board game on a settee to the side of the acting area. But the off-stage death cries were sufficiently blood-curdling, and what particularly impressed was that these two boys not only looked like brothers but also could have been the offspring of the Jason and Medea before us. The child-theme was presented with effective pathos. At one moment during Medea's pretended reconciliation with Jason when the family gathered closely together, it seemed that for one brief moment that this awful tragedy just might not happen.

All in all, we had a Medea that was perhaps slow to develop, but with the fluid activity of the chorus, the vital exchanges between Medea and Jason, the perfectly timed 'comedy' of Aigeus, and then an ending of power and dramatic charge the final effect was one of great theatre. In presenting such a worthy sequel to the earlier productions, the Classics Drama Group of Trent University showed that this great tragedy can pack a strong punch indeed.


On the opening nights of both Elektra (1995) and Medea (this year), the production was honoured by the presence of Desmond and Mary Conacher as special guests. Dr Conacher is certainly Canada's leading authority on Greek Tragedy, and a long-time friend of and visitor to Trent. On both occasions he addressed a filled lecture-hall on the play in question, and delighted undergraduates with his insights into the drama that they were about to see or in which they were performing.

From the Programme

Producer: Martin Boyne
Directors: Martin Boyne and Toph Marshall
Choral direction: Toph Marshall
Stage Manager
and Lighting: Nick Hamilton
Music: Nicole Bauberger

Nurse: Patty Morland
Tutor: Matt Gallinger
Medea: Kim O'Hearn
Chorus of Corinthian Women:
Arlene Allan
Amy Gowan
Jennifer Mann
Christy Paraschos
Christina Watters
Creon: Steve Dezort
Jason: Michael Brown
Aegeus: Jake Rubin
Messenger: Sharron McGee
Children: Craig Gear and Justin O'Leary

Ian Storey

(Ian Storey is a Professor in the Department of Ancient History & Classics at Trent University, with special interest in Euripides and Aristophanes.)