“What have the Greeks ever done for us?” Well, how long have you got? Rather a lot actually. Four thousand years ago they were one of the most advanced civilisations of the Ancient World. They pretty much invented mathematics, sculpture, science, medicine and philosophy. Their theatre, including chorus and mask work created lasting and phenomenal stories and helped inform theatrical story-telling to this day. Their ancient history and mythologies are forever deeply encapsulated in our grander world view with names like Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides retaining almost god-like historical status. Not bad for people who lived over 4000 years ago. Many of the stories we smugly think of as contemporary genius have their roots in Greek and Roman mythology and the controversial story of Medea, originally penned by Euripides, a tragedian of classical Athens, (c. 482 – 406 BC) continues to thrill our modern audiences. We even have a term, used in psychology, called The Medea Complex. It is described as ‘a mother’s need and requirement to murder or kill their child as a means of revenge against their father. Otherwise known as filicide.’
At The Lace Market Theatre Euripides’s Medea adapted by Ben Power (originally for The National Theatre in 2014) runs until Saturday 15th October. The cast includes Kathryn Edwards (Medea), David Field (Jason), David Hawley (Kreon), Jack Leo (Aegeus), Kimberley Wells (Nurse), Lydia Daniel (Jason’s Attendant) Elizabeth Gilder (Corinthian Chorus), Clare Moss (Corinthian Chorus), Fiona Tezzider (Corinthian Chorus) and Sarah Taylor (Corinthian Chorus).
This short and powerful play adaption of Medea is directed by Nik Hedges. Nik Hedges also designed the impressive set. Both Hedge’s terrifically tight direction and complex, highly symbolic, set prove that theatrical invention and standards at The Lace Market Theatre continue to be exceptionally high. The Greek god Dionysus would be rather chuffed with this production. Given that Dionysus’ Greek God CV included fertility, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, religion and theatre the story of Medea would be right up his οδός (street).
The central themes of the mythological story of Medea, which is a tragic follow on from her passionate love affair with Jason (of the Jason and The Argonauts fame and pursuer of the illusive Golden Fleece), are bloody revenge; passion in terms of passionate love turning to passionate hatred culminating in the death of her sons, and gender and power. Greek women had relatively little agency, and Medea’s refusal to accept Jason’s abandonment of her family to marry a much younger who is a higher status princess is an expression of female rage and power. Medea’s status is that of a foreigner and even though she is of royal blood it is that of an Asian kingdom and that doesn’t count with the Greeks. This play is a provocative and a nihilistically potent example of perverse and extreme actions and their outcomes. For those who have read the Argonautica – haven’t we all – we would be aware of Medea the sorceress’ crazed appetite for letting blood after killing her own brother to please her lover, the hedonistic Jason.
By Zeus, our Medea ain’t a gal to be messed with. And now Jason has left her to marry another woman after ‘slipping from her bed like a serpent’. No amount of jiggling the worry beads (kompoloi) or big-time smashing plates in a cheap backstreet Greek taverna is going to sort this mess out believe you me. Even The Oracle has gone on an all-inclusive Hellenic cruise to get outta Delphi when Medea explodes with all the fury of the Furies. I mustn’t joke about these things – the Gods will be displeased.
‘For Jason she betrayed her country and stole the fabled gold, For Jason she bewitched the daughters of old King Pelias, making them mad until they slit their royal father’s throat. For Jason she butchered her own small brother Apsyrtus, hacking his flesh to pieces and throwing him to the sea food for the sharks. She did all this for him.’ From Medea adapted by Ben Power.
This top-class decidedly five star production of Medea at The Lace Market Theatre is truly riveting stuff. It is played by the exemplary cast as naturally as possible given the highly dramatic curves and mood changes. Each and every part is seamless in its clarity and sublime co-ordination. It is a particular triumph of narrative, has moments of bleak and deathly poetry and uses physical theatre particularly where the four Corinthian chorus members are concerned, and their body movements echo those of Medea. All four of the chorus cast’s voices are pitched just right for understanding and dramatic purpose. It could all fail as a production if it became mannered and over blown. Thankfully Nik Hedges direction and the skills of the talented LMT cast ensure the story is all played out with impressive integrity. Mask work and affecting puppetry are used throughout to great effect. Hugh Philip’s sumptuous lighting design and Matt Allcock’s faultless sound and projection are glittering technical jewels that help lift this production out of the ordinary.
In the title role Kathryn Edwards gives us a contemporary and combative Medea, an uber intelligent blend of the mystical and the realistic. She is bristling and bruising, cunning, manipulative and premeditated to murder without insanity. Her revenge moments are super calculated and Edwards’ professional performance never lets up as her character’s chemical imbalances make her emotionally extreme. Medea’s sanity in the killing of her young sons to revenge Jason is harrowing but in a weird way you almost feel some sympathy towards her plight as a betrayed, disenfranchised woman in exile. Edward’s unnerving performance is a lesson in controlled awareness on the stage and could be one of the best female performances seen in a long time on the Lace Market Theatre stage.
The play oozes atmosphere and stormy menace and this production is graced with another fine actor, David Field (last seen as John Merrick in The Elephant Man). Initially Field gives us what seems to be a sympathetic Jason all full of caring about the fortunes of his young boys and their mother Medea now he about to marry into Corinthian royalty. “Betrayal? What betrayal? I’m doing it all for you darling.” He will ensure they are taken care of and financially secure. His ‘good intentions’ are arrogantly oblivious that his actions in leaving Medea to marry another are callous in the extreme. Field is economic yet strong in his body posturing as Jason until Medea cruelly poisons his new bride and her father King Kreon. Then we see him crumble as a desperate and shattered man. It is an excellent and very believable performance in its subtlety.
David Hawley is confident and commanding as King Kreon and his portrayal appears to be based on an assertive self-knowledge and lacks any kind of OTT kingly bombast and thereby presents a richer and more truthful characterisation. Jack Leo’s King Aegeus of Athens is perhaps the most sympathetic and likable visiting character on the stage and his love for Medea is palpable even though you do wonder if she is being pretend nice to get a get out clause and political sanctuary.
Kimberly Wells (Nurse) and Lydia Daniel (Jason’s female attendant) both make Ben Power’s powerful script live on stage and their clear diction and character warmth make the play very accessible story telling. Medea is one of the better plays this reviewer has seen presented at The Lace Market Theatre and if you of a mindset that Greek Drama isn’t your kettle of steamed octopus then think again and invest in a couple of tickets for this show and I guarantee that your mind will be radically changed. It is bloody excellent.