How do you take an ancient Greek play about betrayal and revenge, that culminates in a mother murdering her two children, and reimagine it into relevance for a contemporary audience?
Nina Levy asked this question and more of Sally Richardson, the director of Black Swan State Theatre and WA Youth Theatre companies’ upcoming production of Medea.
Nina Levy: This version of Medea is by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks… how have the writers shaped this story for a contemporary audience?
Sally Richardson: Kate and Anne-Louise’s Medea is very much an “of the now” re-writing of the play. This is Medea as experienced from the perspective of the two sons of Jason and Medea, and set in the boys’ bedroom in a family home somewhere in Australia. It’s a story that is over 2500 years old, with events unfolding as per the Euripides version but it is adapted into a modern vernacular and represented in a very human, poignant and moving way.
NL: When did you first come across this version of Medea? What drew you to the play?
SR: The work was first performed in 2012 and won the Sydney Critics Circle Awards for Best New Australian Work, Best Main Stage Production, Best Direction, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Newcomers. Friends had seen the show at Belvoir St Downstairs studio space and said it was incredibly moving.
I had directed Kate’s play The Danger Age in 2010 for [the now defunct Perth theatre company] Deckchair Theatre and I was keen to do another work of Kate’s here in Perth. Given the subject matter around the breakdown of a family unit and a once passionate marriage, this work feels both timely and relevant to our audience.
NL: Medea is a collaboration between Black Swan and WA Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) – tell me about the collaborative process.
SR: WAYTCo helped us undertake the critical first stage of the project in finding the two young casts to play the key roles of the brothers Jasper and Leon. In a process facilitated by WAYTCo, and in their space, over a single day we saw more than a hundred boys. We then ran a once a week workshop for eight weeks for the selected 25 emerging artists. The boys received an introduction to Medea and professional theatre, and it allowed the team a real chance to work with and get to know our potential cast members. There are two alternating casts, so at the end of the process two pairs of boys were selected for the roles: Jalen Hewitt and Jesse Vakatini, and Lachlan Ives and Jack Molloy.
Now in rehearsal we have WAYTCo’s ongoing support and WAYTCo Associate, emerging artist Amelia Burke, has also joined the team as an observer.
NL: The fate of the children is one of the most tragic elements of Medea. How do you look after the emotional well-being of the young performers playing the roles of Leon and Jasper?
SR: Although they are playing characters a couple of years younger, the four boys are actually aged 14-15 so in many ways they are quite mature, and even joke about the play being actually quite funny “except for the homicide at the end”. We have had some deep discussions around how this might happen and why it can happen, but it’s the tragedy of this that is also what makes the play so relevant and timely.
NL: As a director you’re renowned for bringing together multiple disciplines. Describe the vision for this work in terms of your artistic practice.
SR: My creative practice through Steamworks Arts has seen me actively championing the voice, presence and creativity of women in the performing arts. This production is no exception having been created by two leading female playwrights with a female lighting designer in the incredible Lucy Birkenshaw, singer/songwriter/composer and arranger Melanie Robinson on the team, Laura Boynes as movement director and powerhouse actor Alexandria Steffensen in the lead role. We also have an all-female backstage team in Erin Coubrough and Ana Julien Martial so we balance out the boy numbers pretty well! The script also gives us lots of room to choreograph our own play and fight sequences, so there are plenty of opportunities to create an exciting physical score as well.
SR: What do you think the cast members will bring to the play?
NL: The boys are wonderful and bring buckets loads of enthusiasm, energy, a wicked sense of humour and cheeky playfulness to their roles. Never mind superb good looks and charm… (they’ll love me for saying this!).
Alex [Steffensen], a WAAPA grad recently return from over East, will be new to Perth audiences and I know her Medea is going to blow people away. Her reading is intelligent, gutsy, while also being deeply moving. All together, it’s going to make for an unforgettable night in the theatre.
Pictured top: Lachlan Ives, Alexandria Steffensen and Jack Molly rehearsing ‘Medea’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.