Friday, 23 August 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Medea - The King's Arms, Salford.

Rotten Park Road’s latest production is described as a ‘reimagining’ of the tragedy Medea by Euripides, although it is closer to a deconstruction of the original work and its themes, with a discourse on the nature of acting and performance itself – Euripides by way of Samuel Beckett, if you will.

Peter McGarry’s adaptation of the Euripidean tragedy strips the cast to just two: Medea (Lynne Payne) and the Chorus (Sophie Toland), with the expansive Chorus itself being pared down to just one figure. The play presents Medea and the Chorus as wanderers through time, condemned to perform the tragedy of Medea over and over again. To reflect the themes, director Patrick McConnell has chosen to provide an equally stripped back setting: a stage block positioned upstage left, a keyboard located upstage right, and then two wooden crosses, one downstage left and the other downstage right, covered with blood and each adored with a bloody child’s t-shirt – clearly there to represent the two children murdered by their mother, Medea. There was an interesting use of lighting, with two floor lights pointing up into the performance space which allowed for some noticeable shadows of the performance on the backcloth while Payne and Toland performed.

The production began with Payne and Toland entering the stage, with Payne, wearing a red dress (symbolising the blood Medea was responsible for spilling), muttering to herself , “I am Medea,” over and over again before Toland’s Chorus (clearly identified as such by a name-badge) informed her that she was an actress, before getting her to bow to the audience, exit the performance space, and then re-enter. It was then explained that Medea (or rather the actress) and the Chorus have been brought by the Muses from their own time into our time (Medea pointed to the audience and asked who they were, to which the Chorus replied, “Idiots. They are future people”) to perform Medea yet again, much to the lament of our Medea (“Why not comedy? Why tragedy…why Euripides, hater of women?”). From here, the Chorus and Medea enter a discourse about their performance predicament, with Medea in particular showing a keenness to break the cycle and not perform any more, to become like the ‘mortals’ of our time, to play at being them. The Chorus, however, behaving as the Chorus in classical Greek tragedy should, is intent on moving the story onwards as the Muses and Deities demand.

Amongst the ‘tug of war’ between the Chorus’s desire for the performance to proceed and Medea’s refusal to relive the bloody deed of infanticide, there was the opportunity for humour in amongst the discourse of philosophy, art, and highly contemporary issues (there were discussions around feminism, environmental issues, and humanity’s still constant ability to wage war with itself) - one notable example being when Payne leered at an audience member and declared, “He looks like he lays with goats!” when examining the denizens of our unfamiliar time – but where this production really played its hand was in the moments when the Chorus and Medea focused on the original work by Euripides. An overview of the play was led by the Chorus playing the keyboard and narrating the events of the tragedy while Medea moved gracefully around the stage (Toland’s skill on the keyboard was matched by Payne’s fluid movement). Later, Medea persuaded the Chorus to take on the role of Jason (of the Argonauts fame), husband and betrayer of Medea, by picking up a mask for the Chorus to wear (a moment which featured a rather brief, if somewhat postmodern joke involving a mask of another infamous character called Jason) and Toland did a great job doing a very ‘masculine’ performance as Jason while Payne made clear the damage her husband’s betrayal – leaving her for a younger princess – was doing to her emotionally. The most astonishing part of the whole production, however, was when the re-enactment of Medea’s infanticide occurred and Payne and Toland sang a song after the event was done to sing the dead children to their final sleep. The singing from both was outstanding, with spine-chilling harmonising, and the visible tears welling up in the eyes of both Payne and Toland at the climax of the scene made the tragedy feel even more raw.

Guided by the very strong performance of Payne and Toland, this production of Medea manages to pull apart the original work of Euripides and refashioning it for a modern audience and manages to avoid turning into an over-indulgent, overtly intellectual exercise in theatrical exhumation. There is wit and intelligence in this representation of Medea and it is tempered by a strong emotional core, brought out by the performances of its two actors.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 22/8/19

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