wed 17/07/2024

Medea, Bristol Old Vic - formulaic feminism lets Greek classic down | reviews, news & interviews

Medea, Bristol Old Vic - formulaic feminism lets Greek classic down

Medea, Bristol Old Vic - formulaic feminism lets Greek classic down

Greek tragedy stripped of its ambiguity and depth

Medea-Maddy (Akiya Henry and the full company)Jack Offord

Greek tragedy provides an unending source of material for the stage: in no other theatrical form have the labyrinths of human nature been so deeply explored: the rich tapestry of archetypal family conflicts, driven by instincts that force helpless characters into inescapable constellations of behavior that have resonated through several millennia.

The Greeks understood, perhaps better than anyone, the perpetual ambiguity of human character. The divinities they imagined were never one thing or another, good or evil. Christianity and other religions of the book brought us a more rigid set of oppositions, either-ors, easier on the audience: the baddies strictly wicked and horrible, the heroes or heroines distinguished by good behavior, free of sin and express-bound for the rewards of heaven.

In Greek mythology, there aren’t many hard-edged oppositions: people display an unholy mess of faults and qualities. Shadows lurk under every silver lining. The stuff of tragedy is born of that mess, the mixed-up contradictions of our being. George Mann’s production of Medea, with translations from Euripides by Robin Robertson and a new text by Chino Odimba, forces the story of warrior Jason’s wife, abandoned for another woman, into a format that is thoroughly contemporary, but almost totally stripped of its original mystery, richness and depth. The result is strangely empty of resonance - a shrill call for women’s rights in a world dominated by men. The fault-lines that should run pell-mell through the whole of humanity have, in this production, been rendered as character-specific: in the wrongdoings of two-timing treacherous Jason, and Medea’s desperate and murderous act of the cornered victim.

There was all too often a feeling of drama by numbers, with over-worn displays of physical theatre from the six women-strong company, as if the lessons of Lecoq and his brilliant followers had been forgotten and the body’s movements divorced from any meaning, the language used devoid of imagination, with clichés of choreography making for display rather than drama.Much of the text was sung, a nod to the Greek tradition, but the limited melodic range, in counterpoint to a kind of doo-wop and jazz chorus, became, after a while, repetitive and lacked the varied pace and tension that might have provided the extra dimensions which the production mostly lacked.

The idea of switching from the contemporary predicament of Maddy, abandoned by her adulterous soldier husband, with the myth of Medea was a good one, and the dissolving from myth to present and back deftly executed at times. Akiya Henry playing both women had tons of presence, but the weak text undermined her at every moment, while she ranted as if to a feminist recipe that fought against subtlety in its forced need to persuade.

Call this writer an unreconstructed male chauvinist, but my female companion, a writer of fiction and not exactly stuck in old-fashioned views, was equally disappointed and bored. I could not help remembering Ian Rickson’s 2014 production of "Electra" at the Old Vic, in which Diana Quick managed to make the ’monster’ Klytemnestra a sympathetic character, worthy of our empathy. The Bristol Maddy/Medea lacked that kind of complexity, working instead a vein of fashionable victimhood, interspersed with ill-timed interventions of strange humour that provoked laughter at inappropriate moments. It was as if we were suddenly being plunged into pantomime, with the genre’s reliance on well-tried tropes, rather than psychological depth.

The finale dragged on mercilessly, with an ear-splitting electronic version of screaming children that sounded over-familiar and lacked shock value, loads of ominously drifting dry ice, obligatory strobe lighting, a bold and beautiful white stairway to heaven that looked great but served no obvious dramatic purpose, and an apoplexy of unimaginative physical theatre designed to evoke the terrible death-throes of members of Creon’s family.  There was energy in this show, but very little in the way of breathtaking surprises that make theatre such a joy or give a sense of being taken on a harrowing psychological journey. This felt at times like propaganda, let down by a kind of mainstream TV superficiality that failed to reach heart or head in the way that Greek tragedy can – with some risk-taking imagination – sometimes achieve.

The result is strangely empty of resonance- a shrill call for women’s rights


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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