Medea, Gate Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

“They were here,” insists one of Medea and Jason’s two ill-fated sons. “They existed.” He’s talking about mammoths, a disputed answer in the boys’ animal game. But the comment applies equally to the pair of tragic children at the heart of Euripides’ play, integral to the plot yet not allowed to assert their own existence. Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ version of the tragedy refocuses events, offering us the children’s perspective and in the process making them more than simply the victims of fate. They were here. They existed.

It’s a compelling conceit for adapting a tragedy that is stubbornly problematic. Here, for a change, the concern is less with explaining how a woman could possibly kill her children and more with what those children might make of it all. Leon and Jasper are, like so many children of divorce, trapped between warring parents. They are also quite literally trapped, locked inside their bedroom while Medea and Jason thrash out their differences downstairs. Amy Jane Cook’s detailed design – all toys and clutter and a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars tacked to the walls – invites us into that bedroom, limiting the boundaries of the drama to the four walls of the two boys’ imaginative world.

And so we watch them being two young brothers. They’re playful and cruel and silly and serious. The sibling squabbles – especially as cheekily, unaffectedly performed by the fantastic Keir Edkins-O’Brien and Bobby Smalldridge on the night I attend – are beautifully observed (and I write with the authority of a sister of three fiercely competitive younger brothers). They pelt each other with plastic ammo from toy guns and try to outdo each other in games and contests. They call each other names: “idiot” and “nincompoop”. They taunt and tease. Most important of all, they’re ordinary, more human being than myth.

There is, though, a subtle undercurrent of danger that Mulvany and Sarks play with throughout. Thanks to the notoriety of those three little syllables in the title, as an audience we can be relied upon to collectively hold our breath, waiting for the storm to break. The show opens with Leon splayed out on the floor, playing dead. The scene is chilling in its prescience even as we laugh at Jasper’s tactics to rouse his brother – everything from dragging him across the floor to farting in his face. Later, when the two boys play at war, it’s with a lingering awareness on our part of the conflicts raging beyond their locked bedroom door.

Mulvany and Sarks’ take on Medea, though, runs the risk of becoming too ordinary. Like the Belvoir’s determinedly prosaic version of The Wild Duck, this production transposes the classic into the everyday. It’s Medea as divorce play. Emma Beattie’s desperate, broken Medea is just a mum faced with the unthinkable prospect of losing her children, the sons just two regular kids caught in the crossfire. When the mythic does intrude, in playful references to the Golden Fleece and the Argo, it feels oddly out of place. That choice, of course, asks questions in itself. What’s so special about these two boys and their untimely deaths? What, after all, is the significance of myths and tragedies? What can these ancient narratives tell us about how we live now?

But where The Wild Duck was devastating in its shattering of an unremarkable family, this Medea gives itself nowhere to go save the inevitable. We know what’s coming. “We’re completely powerless,” says Leon, gazing up at the glowing stars on the walls and speaking more truth than he realises. While the children’s perspective is a novel one, though, its limited scope can offer neither explanations for nor ramifications of the terrible act that ruptures the world this production carefully builds around Leon and Jasper. It’s just a horrifying full-stop.

Photo: Ikin Yum.

Lines, Yard Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

As I write this, London is awash with little dots of red. Poppies wink in buttonholes and stare up from boxes in train stations. Men and women in uniform, old and young, suddenly seem to be everywhere in the city, eyeballing the naked lapel of my coat. Usually at this time of year I dutifully buy my poppy and pin it to my chest, more routine than anything else. This year, though, I feel uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual of donning this symbol, skirting around the servicemen and women who have appeared on every other street corner.

I feel similarly ambivalent about Lines, the aptly timed new show at The Yard. But then the show itself projects a complex, difficult ambivalence about its subject matter. The title is a reference to army barracks: lines are where soldiers sleep, change, wash. It’s where they do their living and their thinking in between the action of training and conflict. Pamela Carter’s play, informed by her and director Jay Miller’s conversations with soldiers past and present, zooms in on four new recruits, all signed up for different reasons. It probes – without necessarily judging – their motivations, their interactions and the punishing training they undergo.

Crucially, Lines shows these soldiers at the centre of a world in flux. This is the first year in more than a century that British troops are not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world. Meanwhile conflict itself is constantly mutating as a result of technology and terrorism, moving further and further away from the romanticised Hollywood version of war that these men compulsively regurgitate. Away from the army barracks, conceptions of masculinity are changing, and damaging political and economic forces constrict the possibilities for many young men (and women). As each of the characters here acknowledges, there aren’t a lot of other options open to them.

While the premise is straightforward enough, Lines is a complicated and often intentionally confusing 90 minutes. For a start, its perspective is ever-shifting. In the longer first half, we mostly see the interactions – tentative, teasing, macho – between these four very different men as they are drilled into becoming a team. These exchanges, though, are constantly interspersed with the vocalised thoughts of each of the recruits. It’s often unclear – deliberately so, I think – where private reflection ends and group bonding begins. As they prepare for (possible) war, it’s vital that these trainee soldiers form a unit, each always having the others’ backs. And so as the days and weeks slide by, individual identities blur, all becoming absorbed into the group.

There’s also a sense, despite Alex Lowde’s ostensibly naturalistic design of beds and lockers, that we are inside these soldiers’ minds as much as we are in the barracks. We might be stationed in the one place where they rest, but Miller’s production can’t stay still. The frenetic movement – punctuated with blinding bursts of light and the fierce, distorted commands of the corporal, all the while underscored by Josh Grigg and Manni Dee’s throbbing soundtrack – reflects the adrenaline and anxiety of the men’s internal experiences as their training intentionally overwhelms them. The would-be soldiers might be preparing to fight the likes of ISIS, but Lines reveals their coaching as little more than radicalisation of another kind.

The characters themselves are designed to surprise. When we first see them, changing out of civvies and into uniform, they’re an undifferentiated line-up of aggressive masculinity, all strutting and flexing. But as they change and change again (there’s much taking on and off of clothes, an emblem of shifting identities), more facets of their personalities emerge, often subverting what we’ve been taught to expect from military narratives. Not long into training, Tony Clay’s Locke straightforwardly reveals that he’s gay; neat-as-a-pin Valentine (Ncuti Gatwa) explains that he’s here not to get laid and shoot guns, but for God and honour. Meanwhile Robbie O’Neill’s Mackay might have a more stereotypical thirst for heroism and violence, but he’s also cheerfully accepting of and affectionate towards his fellow soldiers.

Casual racism and homophobia – two more features that we might expect from army life – are both flirted with but then disavowed. Except, that is, in the form of sloppy, bigoted Perk, the weak link in the quartet. His bed always messily unmade, he struggles with army life while directing half-jokey slurs towards his comrades. He needs to be here – what else is there for him, save a dead-end job in Poundland? – but it’s clear from the beginning that he won’t be able to keep up. As played by Tom Gill, he’s difficult to like but impossible to entirely hate. Restless and jerky, he vibrates with pent-up energy, a fidgeting symbol of the directionless frustration of so many young men from whom hope and compassion have been robbed. And when the others finally turn on him, as of course they must, the tension is unbearable.

Then, after an oddly swift and not entirely necessary interval, that carefully mounted tension – along with Perk – disappears. We still seem to be in the barracks, but the text becomes more abstract, more confusing. Locke, Valentine and Mackay are all describing deaths (brave, bloody, triumphant deaths) in conflict. Their own? Other soldiers’? Or those of self-sacrificing heroes in glibly glorifying Hollywood movies? As the scene continues, it appears to be the latter, but once again Miller’s production is calculatedly unclear. The point, perhaps, is that the boundaries between those different deaths have themselves become clouded, as has the distinction between celebration of comradeship and critique of aggression. Watching this sequence, a kind of queasiness creeps over me: a mixture of discomfort at the aestheticising of war in the characters’ language and uncertainty about the many competing politics of conflict at play.

“Peace,” says one of the recruits, “is just a gap between wars.” It’s a statement, like so much of the show, that can be read multiple ways. Peace, in one sense, can only be defined in opposition to war, a truth that to me feels implicitly critical of the violence that constantly seeps across the globe. But for these soldiers, trained and poised for war, peace is just that: a gap, a period of waiting around. I think again about all those poppies. Are they markers of respect and remembrance? Problematic badges of patriotism? Or are they hollowed-out symbols, tools deployed for political point-scoring? Lines might coincide with the annual performance of remembrance, but it isn’t about to provide any answers.