Euripides' Medea
Adapted and directed by Maurice Evans

The Actors Company
Jermyn Street Theatre, London, October 1998

Reviewed by Antony Keen
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London

The words "The action is set in Greece during the present day", combined with a series of character names that never appeared in Euripides' text, was enough to send my heart sinking. Was this going to be a relentlessly stylistic "adaptation" of Euripides that would miss many of the playwright's points? Modern Greek settings are all very well when it is Michael Caccoyanis commenting on Greece under the colonels through his film of Electra. But it's quite another for a production presented in a small basement theatre in London.

The opening scene, in which Nicola Jolly as Lydia (the Nurse) reads Tarot cards before being joined by Steve Lennox as Yianni (the Tutor) for some dialogue that bears little familiarity for anyone familiar with Euripides, rather suggested my fears were correct, as an interruption of the action by a young actress who set some of the background of the original production and commented on how the play might relate to ancient and modern audiences. But slowly the play got itself back on track.

The handling of the choral odes showed this progression. The action on the stage would stop, and one of four actors would come and comment. At first, these comments would have more to do with how a modern audience would be expected to react to the play than to anything Euripides ever wrote, but as the play progressed, the interruptions came, at least thematically, to cover the same ground as the odes they replaced. What started out as a dreadfully clunky device that screamed "student production" had by the end evolved into something which never quite worked, but was at least a noble attempt.

Likewise, the main action started out littered with extraneous press photographers and other "modern" touches, but by halfway through had got back to the text, and was making a good job of presenting it. This production never really addressed the human/divine conflict that Medea personifies, but did pick up on the foreign/Greek and female/male conflicts that the play embodies, the former emphasized by casting an American as Medea when all the other significant roles were held by Brits. The combining of the role of nurse with that section of the Chorus' lines that form part of the action was a clever move, giving added credibility to the character's complicity in Medea's dreadful crime. If the Aegeus scene was played rather too much for laughs, dissipating the tension of the play, it was a forgivable lapse.

Much of the credit must go to the cast. Like the National Youth Theatre they are made up of unknowns, but they are graduates and mature students where the NYT are 14 to 21 year olds. The extra age counts, and there is a lack of any desire to show off. Particularly good is Nicola Jolly as Lydia, whose loyalty to Medea traps her into complicity and destroys her. Samantha Weaver as Medea never touches the spirituality of the character, and sometimes slips into melodramatic mode (or even Days of Our Lives), but most of the time is good, especially in her defiance and duplicity. Simon Land as Jason is weak in the earlier scenes, but comes up trumps in his final confrontation with the disembodied Medea. Only the children seem not to be fully immersed in the play, but this is understandable.

This production of Medea is not one that sears itself on the memory, but it did provide a pleasant diversion, and relief from some more ambitious and pretentious productions that I had recently sat through.

Antony Keen
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London