By Tom Barry
“No good or evil. We are all as wretched as each other”
Amongst the few Ancient Greek texts to have survived the centuries, Euripides’ most renowned (and arguably well-regarded) play Medea stands as a fascinating spyglass into the psyche and society of the time, and its treatment of women. Regarded as a warning of feminine capriciousness by some, and as a proto-feminist diatribe by others, Medea’s position as a classic of the form is beyond contestation.
Beginning tomorrow evening, York Drama Society will stage a revival of a modern reinterpretation of the play, courtesy of Ben Power. His script is shorter, sharper than a literal translation of the original; it liberates the characters and their interactions from the bounds of time and place, and focuses instead on central themes. Where 20th century feminist scholar Carol Hanisch observed that “the personal is political”, Power’s version extricates the relationship between Medea and her former lover Jason from the original’s overarching commentary, rendering what once was political into a profoundly personal power-play between the two, each determined to ‘win’ their ensuing separation, no matter the cost. Acrimony is the order of the day.
The focus of the play remains of course on the eponymous sorceress; while no longer in Ancient Greece, Power has kept almost every element of the original which pertained to the character’s backstories and faculties. Medea’s power is supernatural: she works in ways that defy scientific explanation, but these are merely means to her ultimate goal of revenge against those who have wronged her. This allows her a degree of influence unusual for a woman in her position, especially within the explicitly patriarchal context of the play’s world. Medea is determined not to be beaten by man or god, or worse manipulated by them to ends not her own.
The underlying tragedy pervading the piece, is the fatalism that all characters are subject to.
Kate Lansdale, who plays Medea, defends her as a character who defies categorisation; in a play that savours moral ambiguity, she is neither heroine or anti-heroine, nor even the villain of the piece. Kate hopes that by the time her side of the story is told, the audience will be able to empathise with her motives (if not sympathise with her actions). Medea is forced (at least as she sees it) into a situation where she has no other recourse but to commit an unspeakably heinous crime. Anything else would be to admit defeat, and her entire view has been so warped by the injustices inflicted upon her that she no longer conceives of there being any choice left for her.
The underlying tragedy pervading the piece, is the fatalism that all characters are subject to. All actions and results are preceded by those before, locking every actor into their own personal descent into decay, both moral and literal. The set is dilapidated and grim, which blends well (as director Jess Corner informs me) with the Drama Barn’s well-worn decrepitude. While eschewing any particular style of performance in rehearsal, Corner and the cast have endeavoured to retain the rhythm of the language, stemming from the ancient tradition of oral poetry to which the play still pays homage. At only a hour long, Medea promises to be a concentrated, cathartic experience.
Medea by Euripides, in a version by Ben Power, will be performed at the Drama Barn on the 25th-27th of November at 7:30pm. Tickets are available on the door and online.