BSSTC's production of Medea - by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, original concept by Anne-Louise Sarks after Euripides; at Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA; Perth, WA. Photographed on 8th August 2019, by Philip Gostelow.
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The power of the ordinary

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Co. with WA Youth Theatre Co., Medea ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 10 August ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

They have been so long dead. Two thousand, four hundred and fifty years in fact.

Like the princes in the tower or the infant victims of Macbeth’s fell swoop, the sons of Jason and Medea died mute and unknown, their individual humanity unexplored and undefended.

Since then, Medea – sorceress, she-devil, spirit of vengeance, woman scorned, arch-nihilist and exterminating angel – has been reimagined and recast a thousand times, from antiquity through to Fay Weldon, her character and motivation examined, and claimed, by feminists and misogynists alike.

She has become an elemental figure in art and life.

So it’s an audacious and fecund idea to invert the focus of Medea; to bring her boys to life in their last innocent hour so that their mother’s crime against abstract nature is against real, identifiable people, however young.

In the original, Medea is in every scene, always with only one other character. The boys are never seen, and only their screams are heard as they are slaughtered. In this adaptation the boys are always on stage, and Medea is the only other character we see.

It’s risky. It’s not like, say, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where we have the framework of the characters available to us, where we have heard them speak, seen the whites of their eyes, before.

We know nothing about these boys, and the writers, Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, have created them from absolutely nothing other than the fact of their death; we know how they died, but we can’t be certain why.

It’s hardly through any fault of their own. Leon (Jesse Vakatini) and his younger brother Jasper (Jalen Hewitt) are just kids, locked in the toy-splattered room they share. Mum and dad are having a grown up talk: “About love”, says Leon. “That could take an hour”, replies Jasper, exasperated.

What their parents are talking about – although we never hear them – is his plan to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon, while keeping Medea as his mistress.

It’s not going to wash with Medea. She’s in the boys’ room, full of bad tempered mothering: “This room’s a pigsty – clean it up”.

The boys get to work, and so does she. She’s back, with a beautifully wrapped gift she wants to give Glauce. They are fond of their dad’s “friend”, and happily write a sweet card to go with the deadly present.

And then Medea is back again. This time with a blue cordial for her sweet boys.

Medea_prodpix__LR Alexandria Steffensen. Jalen Hewitt and Jesse Vakatini. image credit Philip Gostelow 10
What replaces the awful power of the original is the universal story of children becoming the victims of their parent’s conflicts and passions. Alexandria Steffensen (Medea) Jalen Hewitt (Jasper) and Jesse Vakatini (Leon). Photo: Philip Gostelow.

There’s little concession to the conventions of Greek tragedy in the writing or in Sally Richardson’s direction; there’s no prologue or chorus, and its brutal and effective catharsis – a sudden glimpse through the gates of Medea’s hell – lasts an instant and is gone.

What replaces the awful power of the original is the universal story of children becoming the victims of their parent’s conflicts and passions; we’ve seen it in countless other ordinary places; we will see it again.

The great strength of this Medea is that ordinariness; the boys play with toy guns and swords, they tease and wrestle, they snuggle up under a doona to watch the stars. Medea bustles about in jeans and shifts; she’s a harassed suburban mother with a lot to deal with, and a lot on her mind.

We know them very well. Which makes their fates even more plangent.

Vakatini and Hewitt give winning performances (they alternate with Jack Molloy and Lachlan Ives; the four were cast after an exhaustive process by WA Youth Theatre Compny, who collaborated with Black Swan for this production) and Alexandria Steffensen is convincing as their mother, even if denied the towering power of the classical Medea.

Which is, perhaps, the dilemma for the audience in this production. If you expect the mighty heights of Greek tragedy and the emotional release it engenders, this prosaic Medea may leave you perplexed and disengaged.

There is something in it, though, that reaches out in a more direct, human way. It is no great monument in a temple on the hill; it’s a couple of little wooden crosses with wilted flowers on a verge outside an everyday suburban house.

Not as powerful, perhaps, but more sad.

Medea plays until August 25.

Read a Q&A with director Sally Richardson here.

Pictured top are Jesse Vakatini as Leon and Jalen Hewitt as Jasper. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

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