Euripides' Medea

Directed by Luca Ronconi

Reviewed by Caterina Barone
University of Padova, Italy

1996 seems to have been the year of Medea, since a great number of events inspired by this Greek tragedy took place last year both in Italy and abroad. Among the most significant ones the following are surely worthy to be mentioned: the novel Medea: Stimmen by Christa Wolf, and some outstanding theatrical performances from the Euripidean text, such as that by Edith Clever at the Schaubuene in Berlin, the one by Mario Missiroli at the Greek theatre of Siracusa, and, in the end, that by Luca Ronconi, with a male actor in the role of the protagonist. So much interest is due, generally speaking, to the great richness of content of classical myths, which attract more and more the interest of our contemporary culture, always looking for an answer to the urgent questions of the present. The story of Medea, in particular, offers to us a topic, among the numerous implicit ones, which is of burning importance in our society: that of the difficult meeting of different cultures and ways of life which are diametrically opposed.

In the Euripidean tragedy, the chief character's diversity has been marked by the passage to a culture which is geographically and historically different from her own. The rules and conventions which are in force in this new culture are opposed to those of Medea's primordial and 'divine' original world. Medea is oppressed by a sense of guilt as she has left her own country and betrayed its ancient values to marry a Greek. She feels to have lost her own identity. It is on this interpretation that Luca Ronconi builds his own play.

Already the first scene, where the Nurse, wearing oriental clothes, sings a melancholy folk-song, conveys a feeling of extraneity and precariousness. The setting all around is poor, wretched, neorealistic: a sort of understairs with a small opening on the outside on one side, and iron stairs, joining Medea's house with the much higher royal palace on the other side. Down these same stairs come the most powerful men, such as the arrogant and narrow-minded Creonte, who will later prove a repressive despot. In the middle of the scene are to be found some rows of old wooden seats, like those of an old-fashioned cinema; on them are sitting, at the beginning, some members of the audience. Later the Chorus itself will sit there. On two maxi-screens contrasting images are running: on the screen above one can see landscapes of a wild beauty, boundless and sublime spaces, on the one below the images represent some 'aseptic' surgical operations.

This first scene, as we will see later, contains many elements of Luca Ronconi's own interpretation of this tragedy. When Franco Branciaroli-Medea appears in front of the audience, imposing and puzzling in his black petticoat (worn with a white shirt) and his high-heeled shoes, we feel a strong sense of bewilderment, already aroused when we heard his voice provoke the Nurse's song. In the course of the action, this bewilderment becomes a deep feeling of anxiety provoked by the presence of that indefinable and ambiguous being. We realize that what Ronconi offers us is neither an archaeological salvage nor a banal disguise. There is no gestural or vocal mimesis of 'femininity'. It is a picture of a superhuman presence, of a 'different', heavenly presence in which a destructive and malefic power is embodied. Medea's violent action is not provoked by the blinding feeling of love. The female chief character asserts her superiority on her enemies, obeying a code of honour in which the hero cannot accept being mocked by anybody.

In Ronconi's interpretation, the killing of the children becomes a ritual sacrifice, which is done to punish Jason for his betrayal--which is not so much the betrayal of a lover as the breaking of a sacred oath--but also as an expiatory sacrifice of the heroine herself. Medea wants, in this way, to reaffirm her divine origin and leave the human sphere, to which she has been bound since her union with Jason. Her extreme action is not to be interpreted from a psychological point of view, as the revenge of a lover, nor from a sociological one, as a sort of ante litteram feminist claim, but as a deed which restores and sanctions a superhuman condition.

There is a rage in Medea which is wild but, at the same time, also structured and rationally employed. She has recourse with refined cleverness to a deceit in order to carry out her plan. Not only does Medea put this deceit into effect to Jason and Creonte's detriment: she conceals her true nature also from the Nurse and the Chorus, which consists of prematurely aged housewives, busy fussing over household appliances. These ingenuous women are Medea's allies and they are ready to follow her in her social claim, a false aim which she shows off to hide her true ones. The fact that here it is a man that pronounces the famous rhesis on the unhappiness of women's condition makes evident the ambiguity and deceitfulness of Medea's character and the diabolic mechanism of her plot.

Notwithstanding the aprioristic perplexities aroused by the employment of a male actor, this choice has proved itself a positive one in the end, both for its theatrical functionality and plausibility and for Braciaroli's outstanding performance. This actor has been able to avoid the risk of an equivocal sexual ambiguity through a careful calibration of his gestures and his vocal intonation, which are never naturalistic but always alien. Branciaroli, assisted by Umberto Albini, who acts with a smooth but never low voice, proves able to maintain a high vocal intonation during all the play. Even if the divine being who is Medea is plunged into reality and simulates a human nature in her everyday actions-- she peels potatoes and lays the table--she cannot stoop to ordinary spoken language but must maintain a certain level of verbal expression congruent with her true nature.

The use of a male actor, then, is used to 'disclose' to the audience the enigma of a being that the Chorus does not understand. In the light of this disguise, the audience on the cinema seats onstage appears as a metaphor for the audience in the stalls, in an eloquent metatheatre which involves the whole play. On the other hand, the images seen at the beginning on the two screens become the emblem of Medea's own nature, a mixture of destructive rage--the wild landscapes--and rationalistic coolness--the surgical operation.

Her plan of escape, which requires Aegeus's complicity, is 'rational'. The octogenarian Aegeus, who can hardly keep his balance on high buskins, and who is the only character wearing an 'ancient' costume, is convinced by Medea to open the gates of Athens to her, even if she represents a menace to the polis, with the promise of a very much longed-for paternity. This episode was criticized by Aristotle in his Poetics and it is nowadays often left out by directors. It could be interpreted in a political way, as a polemical attack of Euripides on his own city, which not only is unable to recognize the impending danger coming from the East but it also welcomes in its bosom a murderer, a destroyer of new generations, the very embodiment of evil.

Jason is plausibly represented as a young, strong man, a sort of rough social climber in vest, eager to pay off the betrayed Medea with a wad of banknotes kept in a sealed envelope. The marriage to Creon's daughter gives him the opportunity for significant class advancement, which is tangibly represented by the dark suit he is going to put on for the ceremony. But his careless ambition, as in a neorealistic film, will bring him to self-destruct.

In the ending, Medea's apotheosis is particularly effective. She is placed on a service-lift, like a modern mechane, together with the bloody bodies of the children in the old bathtub in which she killed them, a veiled reference to the evening ritual carried out by the mother and her children before the murder, immortalized by Pasolini in his film. Dressed in a white tunic, with her face hidden under a neutral mask, the female protagonist appears even more impenetrable and disquieting. Once the truth has been revealed, Medea shows her nature: ruthless and deceiving divinity, unintelligible and unemotional, underlining and confirming, in this way, the ultimate meaning of the show.

The show offers to the audience a density of symbols and pregnancy of meaning which are unusual but which also represent a limitation, since the excess of intellectualism and artifice, not always easily intelligible, risk blunting the strength of the director's whole idea.

Caterina Barone
University of Padova, Italy