Medea, Gate Theatre

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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.

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The Wild Duck, Barbican

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Confession time. Two Friday evenings in a row now I’ve seen “radical”, 21st-century takes on classic plays. These are plays by well-known writers, plays that get studied in school. And on both occasions, I had no idea what was going to happen. 

First up was David Cromer’s absorbing, stripped back version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a familiar text in the States but one that is performed less frequently over here. This was followed seven days later by Belvoir Sydney’s production of The Wild Duck, in a contemporary reimagining by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan “after Henrik Ibsen”. Both – in different ways – were utterly compelling.

When approaching classics, it’s easy to forget that these were once pieces crafted to surprise and delight audiences rather than to numb them with their familiarity. It’s also easy to forget that for many theatregoers these well-worn texts are a complete novelty at the point of stepping into the auditorium. It is still possible to arrive at Hamlet not knowing the fate of the famous Dane, or to sit through A Doll’s House without queasily anticipating that final, shuddering door slam. And if Our Town and The Wild Duck are anything to go by, they’re probably all the more thrilling for the lack of foresight.

In the case of The Wild Duck, the experience of watching is set at another remove from the classic status of the text, which has essentially been adapted by Stone and Ryan. Were it not for Ibsen’s name plastered over the poster, it would be easy to come away from their production with the impression of having just seen a piece of new Australian writing – a fact likely to irk some theatregoers, but one that points to the mutable nature of theatre’s written components. Times change and texts inevitably change with them, even if not streamlined and modernised as thoroughly as Stone and Ryan’s version.

The other thing to know about this Wild Duck is that it does, in fact, contain a duck. A real, living, breathing, wing-flapping duck. Belvoir’s production opens with said creature alone on the stage, spreading its wings to a joyful chorus of cooing delight; there are few more unifying audience experiences than collectively ‘awww’-ing over an animal.

With that out of the way, the show can begin to move relentlessly towards the domestic tragedy that clouds it from the beginning, blotting out its initial, duck-shaped image of freedom and innocence. This is a dark piece in every way, from Ralph Myers’ spare, pitch black design to the shadows steadily collecting around the characters. Scenes too are bookended with deep plunges into darkness, often at the height of their dramatic action. Part of what makes the production so horribly compelling is that the svelte slices of narrative we are given seem to be hacked out of the middle of conversations, leaving just enough unsaid on either side.

The duck who so confidently opens the show belongs to the Ekdal family, a group of fragile yet content individuals who find an escape from the hostile world in the home they have made together. Simple domestic happiness has a particularly warm glow here, as Hjalmar, his wife Gina and their teenage daughter Hedvig all affectionately nag and tease one another. Their precarious bliss is soon toppled, however, by the malign truth-telling of Hjalmar’s old friend Gregars, who produces one hell of a skeleton from the Ekdals’ cupboard. The subsequent fall is swift and shattering.

Not content with the invisible fourth wall of Ibsen’s naturalistic drama, Myers’ design translates that into a perspex box inside which the increasingly devastating scenes play out, each signalled by its date and time on a screen above the performers. Stage time acquires that compressed and dizzying quality that tends to follow disaster, as scenes start to overlap and dramatic logic, like the family, splinters apart. We in the audience peer down all the while – emotionally pummelled voyeurs made witness to a family’s rapid breakdown.

Perhaps it fails to do justice to Ibsen’s original. Perhaps by sanding that play down to its exposed raw materials it loses some of the texture that had been layered on top. I don’t know. What I do know is that this version is mercilessly affecting, tuning the emotional response of its audience as expertly as it modulates the music between scenes, from ominous strings to a furious snarl of electric guitar. It’s at once heartbreaking and breathlessly exciting.

There is, of course, a different kind of satisfaction to be had from seeing a new take on a familiar text. Each time I see a fresh interpretation of a Chekhov play, for instance, new facets are revealed, new meanings endlessly unfolded. But there is a particular pleasure tied up in the frisson of not-knowing, especially when feeling is deployed with such precision and force. This, I can’t help but suspect, is how such theatre is made to be experienced. Or, as one of my companions put it after the show, “who wants to fucking read a play?”