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Amy Stewart reviews the Bristol Old Vic’s latest offering, as modernity and antiquity clash in Chino Odimba and George Mann’s radical new adaptation of Euripides’s Medea, delivered by a stellar all-female cast.

First performed in the late fifth century BC, Medea follows the sequence of events following Medea and Jason’s return to Greece having succeeded in gaining the golden fleece. In order to gain status in Greece, Jason becomes engaged to the princess Glauce; however, for Medea, this is a disgrace of their weddings vows meaning that she seeks her own revenge.

Euripides’s Medea is one of those plays that is a crucial part of classics curricula from secondary school to university seminars. It is a play that is interested in what it means to enact female revenge, and perhaps how revenge can go too far. It is also a play about what it means to be a ‘foreign’ woman and the prospects of this in a Greek society.

Left to right: Kezrena James, Michelle Fox, Stephanie Levi-John, Jessica Temple, Eleanor Jackson, Akiya Henry (above)

Chino Odimba and George Mann’s exploration of Medea is unlike other modern adaptations of ancient tragedies I have seen to date. Instead of choosing to closely direct Euripides’s Medea or adapt the play to a modern context, this interpretation decides to combine both and places them in parallel to one another. This is achieved through the modern mother and wife, Maddie, who finds a copy of Euripides’s play which she takes inspiration from. Maddie is co-operating with the difficulty of a divorce and her husband’s affair, as well as the looming prospect of her and her children’s home being repossessed.

This parallel between the two possible approaches to Medea is admirable and incredibly engaging for the majority of the play. Having seen many adaptations of Greek tragedy where ancient cultural peculiarities do not sit comfortably within a modern context, this parallel approach was a refreshing one. Although there is some discomfort in a few of the ways in which the two stories are overlapped—such as the cringingly similar names of Maddie and Medea or Jason and Jack—this decision to have fluidity between modernity and antiquity proves a sound one, and yields a play that is fresh and interesting.

The entire cast give a vocally dominant performance, liberating Medea from the all-male shackles of ancient Greek tradition

To make the parallels between Euripides’s Medea and the modern re-telling clear, Euripides’s text is always sung rather than spoken. Traditionally, these ancient Greek tragedies would have been sung, but so accustomed are we to dealing with Medea as a written text, that this approach adds a new dimension and removes any familiarities audience’s may have with the play. This is a far cry from the Penguin Classic sat on all our shelves.

Throughout, there is a constant tension about whether Maddie will carry out the same kind of excessive revenge Euripides’s Medea does

However, as the production becomes more invested in Euripides’s version of Medea, the choral aspect begins to become slightly grating, repetitive and ultimately less successful. The two plays, modern and ancient, the interactions between which initially seem clunky and contrived, begin to synthesise and mesh  together most successfully at the climax of the first half. This was the moment in which I was most invested and excited about what this radical dramatic decision—sustaining two narratives simultaneously—could contribute to modern performances of ancient tragedy.

The supporting cast all multi-role, segueing between modernity and antiquity with fluidity

After speaking to other audience members, it seems that there is unanimous disappoint with the play’s ending. Throughout, there is a constant tension about whether Maddie will carry out the same kind of excessive revenge Euripides’s Medea does, or whether she will forgive her husband’s behaviour instead. Although the writer’s choice for Maddie’s ending was unprecedented, I feel it could have been acceptable had the play ended with simply this.

It is a play that is interested in what it means to enact female revenge, and perhaps how revenge can go too far

Agonisingly, it is Maddie’s final speech to the audience where the play flounders—what should have been its triumphant final cadence reduced to something of a bum note. Maddie talks of her own reception of Medea, of what the play has done for her, and what Medea represents for a modern audience. The monologue seems to preach a heavily feminist reading of Medea, something that is relatively self-explanatory, and unnecessary given the compelling narrative the audience has just witnessed. The speeches within Odimba’s version, which romanticise Medea as a undisputed proto-feminist icon, seem to me troubling and unnecessary for an audience’s personal perception of Euripides’s Medea as well as for Maddie’s reception of the play. It is a case of being told, rather than shown.

The climactic and infamous final encounter between Medea (Akiya Henry) and Jason (Stephanie Levi-John)

Overall, this new reimagining of Medea has some real strengths: its stark, minimalist set; the powerful choice of a vocally dominant all-female cast (in comparison to the all-male cast who would have first performed Medea); and the parallels between Medea as a foreign Eastern woman finding her place in Greece, and Maddie as an African woman in modern Britain. It is a play that deserves to be seen by packed houses, who can make up their own minds about this inventive, original, even radical, adaptation of a classic—I am just not certain that this is a wholly successful Medea.

★★★

Medea runs at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 27th May. Tickets are available here.


What were your thoughts on Medea? Did you agree with out reviewer? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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