Theatre review: Medea at the Gate Theatre, Dublin
Written by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks
Director: Oonagh Murphy
Cast: Jude Lynch, Oscar Butler, Eileen Walsh
The Gate Theatre, Dublin - 8th February 2020
It was somehow inevitable in the current day and age, in the common theatrical reworking and re-evaluation of Greek and Roman myths, that someone would come along and think that Medea is one of those women in classical drama that has had a bit of a raw deal and that this needs a bit of a corrective. Australian writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks's retelling of Medea even takes Euripides's version of the myth a step further than that by not just examining and trying to understand Medea as a mother who does the unthinkable and kills her two sons in a fit of fury, but also in the midst of all this it asks, won't anyone think about the children?
Mulvany and Sarks's Medea really should be called Medea's Children because it is at best incidental to the Medea story. Or if not incidental - since that makes it sound trivial and it's not - it's a take on Medea seen from bystanders who have no real part in the drama that develops, but whose fate is nonetheless crucial to the whole purpose and dramatic impact of the play. And yet the children indeed don't have any voice in Euripides. Can a contemporary retelling of the play seen from their perspective shine a fresh light on the work? Can it deepen our understanding of the meaning of this colossus of a work of drama? Or is it just modern revisionism and gender-bias readjustment?
Well obviously that depends on how the audience react to it and what influences that lies very much within the hands of the writers, the director, the performers and how they approach the work. It would be very easy to infantilise Medea by making the two young boys the central focus of the work and the ones who have to carry the bulk of the acting delivery. Fortunately the young boys Jude Lynch and Oscar Butler are engaging, likeable and sympathetic and Oonagh Murphy's directing finds an authenticity in their play and in the dramatic action, the set brilliantly realised, but the writing is also clever enough to hint at the subtext and parallel events throughout before delivering their rather more thoughtful but no less impactful version of one of the most explosive finales in all drama.
As that implies however, familiarity with the original story is essential since this version of the play takes place wholly within the bedroom of Medea's two boys. Any retelling of the story of their father Jason's heroic exploits with the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece is still very much idealised, even more so than the version handed down by mythology. Jason's subsequent abandonment of their mother in Corinth and his ascent to the royal family of Creon through the promise of marriage to daddy's pretty "friend", the princess Galuce, is very much an adult matter that is beyond their ability to comprehend the implications of or relate to in a way that gets across to an audience the sense of deep betrayal that is felt by Medea.
Medea is present however, taking the form of a modern day mother, and Eileen Walsh brilliantly makes the most of the unparalleled opportunities this role offers even in the limited entrances she gets here. Her increasingly distressed appearances help to get across the deep emotional disturbance that leads her to kill two children that she clearly loves rather than hand them over to Jason and Glauce, and indeed push her - metaphorically or otherwise - to burn their house down.
The writing cleverly introduces that tension even while the boys are locked in their room, the adults arguing downstairs out of the audience earshot. Their games and play involves a thousand ways to die, mauled by a teddy bear, shooting guns and arrows, seeing who is best at playing dead. It's the boys who also introduce the "bunny ears" into discussions of 'daddy's "friend"'. And of course Medea gets the boys to sign a card for the nicely wrapped "present" that she has prepared for her love rival as well.
It's very well written, terrifically performed, the two boys hugely entertaining and, yes, it does present a fresh outlook from a neglected perspective on the myth that traditionally casts Medea as a monster and a witch. To be fair though, opera - in the interests of being fairer - has traditionally been less kind to the philandering Jason, from Francesco Cavalli's 1649 carry-on romp Il Giasone to Aribert Reimann's 20th century social climbing take on Medea. Whether this Medea adds anything new to the myth I suspect not, the intention perhaps more to consider how women in the present day can be and have been pushed to those extremes. Without full knowledge of Euripides's Medea - and even with familiarity with the story - Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks's Medea doesn't entirely grasp the implications of the whole story, and it still feels somewhat incomplete.