When Medea takes her frightful revenge, as a modern audience we don’t know whether to sympathise with her or hate her. After all, she was never an admirable woman — the granddaughter of the sun god Hellos, she was also an enchantress, and thus considered a barbarian by pure Greeks like Jason. But when Jason came to her hometown Colchis, on the edge of the Greek empire, to capture the Golden Fleece, she fell in love with him and helped him overcome all the obstacles set by her father. These included minor challenges like ploughing a field using deadly bronze bulls, sowing it with dragon’s teeth, and wresting the Fleece from the serpent that guarded it. All she wanted in return for this was that he should take her back to Greece and marry her. During their getaway, Medea chops her half-brother into bits to distract her father from following them, and then persuades his other daughters to kill the father.
Well, that’s one version of the story, but as this is one of the most ancient Greek myths, the details differ. Let’s just agree that Medea is no saint, and will turn any trick to get what she wants. What we’re dealing with here is Euripides’ version, written in the mid-5th century BC. The back story is told rather than dramatised because, as in all classical Greek tragedies, the nasty bits happen off stage. We don’t expect to see dramatic action in our modern sense of the word, any more than we expect the characters to be realistic. It’s not the story, but the meaning behind it, and so the play begins in media res, a good ten or twelve years after the earlier events.
Jason and Medea have been married in Corinth, happily we supposed, for years, and have had a number of children. But she is still considered a barbarian, an outsider, so when Jason is offered another wife (Glauce, daughter of Creon of Corinth) he happily deserts Medea and banishes her and the children.
As we all know, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and so Medea takes vengeance on them all — she kills Glauce by giving her a wedding garment of fire and a circlet of gold that burn her alive, and takes her final vengeance on Jason by killing their children.
Of course it doesn’t bear thinking about, or even believing, but we are not asked to decide. Them’s the facts, and there’s no room for pity or even judgment on our part. What the play (adapated here by Suzie Miller) gives us is a fine vehicle for a strong feminist to take her revenge for on the way that she and all women have been treated by their men, so that even killing her own children can be justified rather than having them literally torn apart by her ex-husband’s soldiers. It’s a kind of Sophie’s Choice, I suppose — is it better for a mother to kill her own children gently and lovingly (in this case, by painless poisoning), or to see them being cruelly tortured by her enemies before her eyes?
The big question about this production is how well the original Ancient Greek theatrical style goes down today.Because there’s no action on stage, we have to infer it from the narration, and the audience at first seemed puzzled about how they should react. There was inappropriate laughter at times on opening night, but by the end of the play’s 90 minute duration, everyone seemed to have come to terms with the stylistic method, and there were plenty of horrified gasps as Medea went slowly up the stairs with her poisoned potions for the children, as well as rapturous applause at the end.
Much of the power of the production depends on the performance of the Medea character, here played by Christen O’Leary, whose passion and guile are so strong that she just about carries the play on her own shoulders, as there are only two other characters. Helen Christinson plays the largely ineffectual Nurse (there always has to be a character outside the action who can act as a touchstone) and later Glauce, the ice-cold bitch who steals Jason from Medea and triumphs over her in such a hateful way that we do begin to feel something — mainly pleasure that her punishment is so apt, although of course all that burning wedding garment and searing golden coronet stuff takes place off stage. And then there’s Damien Cassidy as Jason, a pathetic despicable creature, who unfortunately shows neither the charisma nor the power that such a heart-breaker should surely be expected to have in spades.
But maybe that was the fault of the script, which deliberately set out to play the feminist line, and showed up Greek men (all men?) to be selfish and exploitative I suppose Medea wins out in the end, because Jason dies lonely and miserable, killed by a lump of timber falling off his old ship the Argo, whereas she flees to Athens and marries Aegeus (father of Theseus — although that’s another story, of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, and thank goodness we don’t have to deal with that one at this point).
It’s such a confusing story that, if you don’t already have it at your finger tips, it might be an idea to brush up on the details before you go, for the script is not always clear, nor clearly-spoken. For me, the real triumph of the production was the four-person chorus (Simon Carl, Connor D’Netto, Annika Hinrichs and Yasmin Powell from The Australian Voices) and the spine-chilling score composed by Gordon Hamilton, which used a surreal mixture of menace and unreality that gave it the necessary authenticity.