Medea, Gate Theatre

Bobby-Smalldridge-and-Keir-Edkins-OBrien.-Medea.-c.-ikin-yum-67-600x399

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 Trojan Women, Gate Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The king is dead, Troy is burning and the “crème de la femme” of the city are imprisoned in the maternity ward of the hospital, awaiting their fate amid teddy bears and pill bottles. The chorus screams while the gods cackle through mounted television monitors, peering down at the anguished humans with hand-rubbing glee. The Gate Theatre’s bold, visceral new realisation of the fall of Troy and the long tumble from grace to which its female inhabitants are subjected is certainly not a tragedy given to moderation.

Caroline Bird’s thrilling, muscular adaptation of Euripides is, as Poseidon sneers down from his distant Olympus, “an artistic impression” of Troy – a contemporary riff on tales indelibly impressed on the collective cultural memory. This allows for an implicit critique of the way such wars and massacres are historicised; an arch, glancing appraisal of the passing of stories from mouth to mouth. “Am I a poem?” asks Lucy Ellinson’s compelling one-woman chorus, begging the question of how individuals are memorialised, be it by Homer or Euripides or the modern media. It is a question that is as relevant to the depiction of perceived “victims” in present day conflicts as it is to the reading of ancient literature.

And Bird certainly isn’t shy about underlining Troy’s contemporary resonances, as she and director Christopher Haydon wrench Euripides’ characters out of the ancient world and into an unspecified modern realm. This Troy may still have gods in the form of Roger Lloyd Pack and Tamsin Greig’s pre-recorded deities, but it also has smartphones, machine guns and anti-monarchy blogs. This tension between ancient faith and modern secularism emerges repeatedly throughout the piece, with the fickle and malicious gods worshipped by the Greeks and Trojans becoming an apt reference point for the shifting, false idols of our age.

Just as the chorus, cannily pared down to Ellinson’s pregnant woman of the people, wonders whether she is merely “the idea of woman”, this interpretation also feels its way around what it means to be a woman caught in the conflict of motherlands. Louise Brealey’s dazzling, chameleonic portrayal of three of Troy’s pivotal female figures – Cassandra, Andromache and Helen – functions to illustrate three different facets of how women have been painted in the Troy legend: as hysterics, helpless victims and temptresses. The clinical surroundings of Jason Southgate’s striking design, meanwhile, define these women through the role of motherhood, mocking them with the hope of offspring that will be ripped from their breasts while childish paraphernalia laughs down from the walls.

But for all its brutally poetic language, searching interpretation and sheer winding power, there is something that grates a little within this reimagining. Rather than teasing out timeless threads from Euripides’ tragedy and applying these to our current predicament, Bird’s adaptation grasps and rips with both hands. As a result, the stubbornly imposed contemporary parallels, such as Talthybius’ use of Western democracy’s rhetoric to justify the Greek invasion of Troy, sit somewhat disjointedly with the Classical references preserved from Euripides. Meanwhile, the pointedly modern gadgets and glib, incongruous video sequences – as predictably enjoyable as Lloyd Pack and Greig’s performances are – have a touch of smugness that threatens to blunt the potency of the whole.

Heavy-handed as it may be, however, it’s hard not to be enthralled by the antiseptic horror and devastatingly intense performances. There is also something profoundly timely in Troy’s excess and destruction that speaks louder than all of the grinningly placed modern references. As the doomed spires of Ilium look more and more like the towering skyscrapers of late capitalism, perhaps this fresh, harrowing vision of Troy is a Cassandra for our times.