The drums and instruments played at Theatre Lab Company’s Medea might be the same I have heard last time at a Kurdish wedding – here at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith the wedding celebrations of Jason and Glauce are held. We hear from the attending servants who curse the famous Argo Jason arrived with at the palace of his bride’s family, and they warn of the savage eyes of the fierce woman who Jason also brought with him. From the upstairs this Medea mourns the disgrace she is experiencing; after all, she killed her own brother for Jason to gain the Golden Fleece and then arrived with him as her husband here, his royal mission fulfilled, fleeing the despise and revenge of her own relatives. For tonight’s celebrations she will not climb down the bunk bed ladder from her dwellings but accompanied by the choir singing chants in what might be Greek, she finally appears.
“We woman are the most unfortunate”, Marlene Kaminsky’s frosty voice claims, so absorbed in her hate that she will not allow any love for anything anymore. Never has a woman felt more foreign, more abandoned by her husband, reduced to being only yet another trophy from an exotic place far away, itemized and eventually classified as no longer of politically correct existence. The maybe not too far-fetched comparison with ivory enters my mind: Once admired, high-value souvenirs now only leading to embarrassment and shame, hence destroyed in public by their owners (or inheritors) to fight an outdated, cruel market and remove questionable family history. Is this what Medea feels like?
Assuring the absolute loyalty of her servants now returned from the wedding celebrations she did not join, Medea is ordered by her husband’s new royal in-laws to leave the country immediately and to take her and Jason’s children with her. She does not fear the confrontation, stands on the banquet table, refusing to be a victim – suspicions of her intention appear when she, who never begs, asks devoutly for a single day of delay to prepare her enforced exodus. Exile is nothing new for her and requires planning. The king agrees, warning her that further delay must lead to her and her children’s death. “I’ll do what I do best”, responds Medea’s deep, menacing voice, already playing with the thoughts of setting the bridal suite on fire, to poison them all, to kill them silently and accepting her own death should she be forced to act publicly.
Alone again she shouts her own name like a curse, a magic spell, we hear plucked string instruments and her small choir of servants still wearing their bride maid’s dresses, follows her instructions to mangle the bedsheets, to form a sail out of them. Then Jason (Tobias Deacon) arrives alone to emphasize the king’s orders and in a dialogue between two outstandingly powerful individuals, identifying them both as leaders in their own fields, this former couple tests out their remaining influence on each other, their skills of manipulation. He still desires her, but his physical actions are probably rather routinely than emotional passion. And she responds the same way. That he is still wearing his hip groom suit (is that guy liner?) does not smooth the toxic intimacy. Or does he simply want to prove how far he can go during his own wedding night, how far he can push Medea yet another time?
Jason asks Medea to be grateful, having only exile ahead as her punishment for her rage and slandering the royal house – crimes she committed without doubt, as their hosts see it here. Medea does not share this legal conception and her being abandoned also by him, not after having given sons to him. He argues that they are now on Greek territory and no longer among barbarians, admitting that he arrived in exile here as well: Up to his very recent wedding he was an exile himself and for this reason, she of all the people, should understand his fickle situation and be happy for him, for marrying the king’s daughter and securing his house’s position. Chairs having seated the guests earlier are now aimed at each other, are weapons of power games now dangerously physical. Not to overreact, Jason asks her, very aware of his advantage position, then criticizes her for being lustful and savage when staying in a respected home – it seems like he is celebrating himself for leaving out the term “hysterical”. His smugness is repellent.
With Jason gone, Medea counts her alliances, among them her grandfather Helios (in Ancient Greek a deity embodying the of the Sun) – enough bonds to redefine human law in the world aiming to suffocating her, where continuing motherhood is useless and all efforts so far to raise her children have been in vain. Medea’s voice becomes even colder and harder. Her servants, her ever-present choir of consciousness, suspect her intentions, asking her not to slaughter her children while dutifully clearing remaining celebration decorations – after all Jason promised to reengage with the boys once they have grown up. But Medea won’t allow anyone to escape her chosen path of destructions, especially not those having ridiculed her as a woman and as a mother. Her boys do not deserve further humiliation, “someone else will murder them less kindly”. Drums of death and scary strings scream along the dismantling of the banquet.
How is this a different Medea? Its staging makes no effort to not display her as a witch, challenging us to witness her rage and despair, self-hate for having fallen for the charms of a glamorous, hedonistic, maybe much younger opportunist and exactly this makes this production believable. Medea stays conscious of her deeds and their consequences, singing their children a final, fatal lullaby in crimson red light; this even drives her own loyal servants to say: “You are a wretched woman”. Medea will not leave before witnessing Jason’s sorrow. You will end up feeling sorry for him and his vain immaturity, for his dead young bride and for the exploited, extradited children more than anyone else. Euripides lets Medea escape in her grandfather’s divine chariot. I feel sick. Well done.
**** out of 5 stars
Medea by Euripides, directed by Anastasia Revi
This 2014 production by the Theatre Lab Company staged at the Riverside Studios with music by Daemonia Nymphe is available on YouTube