Simon Stone’s Medea, performed by the International Theatre Amsterdam, is a bold, masterful juxtaposition of Euripidean and Contemporary Tragedy, says our arts contributor Barbara Bollig.
Whoever considers mythological narratives to be just that – a thing of ancient times without any prevailing appeal – will certainly be convinced otherwise by Simon Stone’s rewrite of Euripides’ Medea. Yet again Stone offers a successful retelling of myth (his past successes include acclaimed adaptations of Ibsen and Lorca) and masterfully juxtaposes the bold rawness of the human condition, as captured in Euripides’ tragedy, with the 1995 case of American physician Debora Green.
Coincidentally, the case parallels the tragedy of Medea and its major mythemes all too well: Green, who was described in court documents as both ‘wanting the best for her children’ and being ‘emotionally distant’ with patients and ‘obsessive’ with family, reportedly suffered from depression and decreasing emotional stability as she maliciously interfered with her husband’s, Michael Farrar’s, health by poisoning him with ricin (taken from ground castor beans). She ultimately pleaded guilty to arson in their family home, the fire killing two of their three children, and was charged with murder on two accounts. In the process of his separation from Green, Farrar had an affair with another woman and added, from Green’s perspective, to the deterioration of the family situation.
In the International Theatre Amsterdam production, characters from recent and ancient tragedy are translated into a dynamic inventory of dramatis personae, superbly mirroring omnipresent reports of the shortcomings of human life on stage. Medea / Green are performed by Anna, former head researcher at a pharmaceutical laboratory; Jason/Farrar are renamed Lucas, lab assistant turned senior researcher; Glauce finds a voice in the role of Clara, and Creon is introduced as Christopher, Lucas’s boss. The chorus of Corinthean women and the voice of Aigeus, King of Athens, are reimagined in the roles of Mary-Louise, a social worker, and Herbert, a bookstore clerk and Anna’s rehabilitation supervisor, respectively. Lastly, the children await their fate as Gijs (the younger) and Edgar (the older).
Simon Stone sets his reworking of the Medea myth against a plain white, virtually endless and sterile stage whilst nodding to the contemporary media coverage of the case of Debora Green by elevating a cinema screen above the unravelling drama. The opening image, a close-up of Anna’s (Marieke Heebink) eyes, reminds the audience of the omnipresence, the looming of Medea, her dominance in the tragedy and the deeds to come. What unfolds is a world-class performance of the profound emotions and conflicts belonging to human relationships and the themes highlighted in Euripides’ tragedy. The audience is drawn into an evaluation of questions of loyalty vs. selfishness, familiar bonds vs. hunger for power, one’s obsessiveness vs. another’s needs and drives. Stone retells a story of unfulfilled expectations on both Anna and Lucas’s (Aus Greidanus Jr) parts, interlaced with the constant imbalance of emotio and ratio.
Anna expertly encompasses a universal struggle of many women: as the audience learns from narrative recapitulations of her past, she aspires to, as it is somewhat condescendingly termed, “have it all” – Lucas, who used to desire her, her children, and her senior position in the workplace – all the while staying true to herself. As family life unravels because of her self-medication, alcoholism and, as Lucas recalls, her ‘becoming a chore’ on the one hand, and his own affair with Clare, the young, attractive, somewhat naïve daughter of his boss on the other hand, all this is set to fail. However, as in the Greek tragedy, it is not primarily the affair that marks the most devastating blow to the woman scorned, but the sacrifices she has made to keep family life together. As is made apparent in the intense final confrontation between the former couple, conveying utmost desperation with chilling intensity, it was Anna who gave up her career to care for the children whilst acting as an essential consultant to Lucas’s research endeavours, all of which allowed him to rise to the top and resulted in him being chosen to represent the company in their endeavours abroad. This he intends to do with his pregnant lover Clara (Eva Heijnen) and, having been assigned sole custody, the boys.
Anna’s every attempt to lure Lucas back fails. Despite this, she does briefly succeed in getting him to spend another night with her – a fact revealed to Clara by the boys in yet another expertly implemented use of videography. When the boys show her the footage, they repeatedly claim to want to capture the “real face” of Lucas. It’s a home video mirroring the media coverage of the Green case. Acting on Edgar’s loyalty to his mother, they inadvertently accelerate events, sending her spiralling back into a dangerous state of mind worse than that before her voluntary confinement in a mental hospital, after the discovery of her poisoning Lucas with ricin.
Anna considers her only way out to be one of cruelty. For this she draws inspiration from two stories of women: one recent (Lorena Bobbit’s trial), one ancient (Ovid’s Philomela), both of which prove artful intersections by Stone. The former is that of a woman cutting off her partner’s penis in what was initially deemed an affective overreaction, but was later discovered to be the result of his sexually abusing her for years. The latter, represented by direct reading from the book on stage (and screen), is the tale of Philomela, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who was defiled and kept prisoner, then freed by the Bacchae before dismembering her desecrator. It is through these intersections that the potential for cruelty against others is continually brought to the forefront, contrasting the verbal confrontations between Anna and Lucas and her episodes of self-harm. This increase in Anna’s hurt and violent vigour as a lead-up to the catastrophe find visual representation in the form of blood sharply besmirching the minimalist white stage and Lucas’s face, as it emanates from Anna’s hands and wrist.
Another convention that had a profound impact on the audience was the onset of a silent ripple of ashes onto the stage. Signifying and mirroring the end of her world during her last fight with Lucas, the cascading ash represents the outpouring of the couple’s history, the sacrifices made for their relationship, Lucas’ plans for the future and the irreparable destruction of what used to be. Where Lucas removes himself, emotionally and spatially, Anna remains, crawling in a pile of ashes, broken and powerless; whilst the boys, in an unwittingly hurtful manner, spread the ashes like children playing with fall leaves. The following catastrophe is accompanied by Anna’s sober narration of the developments, referencing the report of repeated phone calls Green made to Farrar before the death of the children. Clara then joins the family on stage and the boys begin to pour blood over her, all the while Anna recalls stabbing the love rival repeatedly in the stomach, graphically explaining her last seconds to a dishevelled Lucas. She relishes in telling him how terror gripped her face, how her last utterances were gurgling and that, at the very last moment, she even liked Clara for the expression of selflessness that crept across her face. Christopher, Clara’s father, dies by Anna’s knife too as he attempts to separate her from his child.
Following the Medea myth, the next intent is to bathe the boys who are now sitting centre-stage in the ash rain. ‘I wanted to hear something in your voice that made the nightmare end […] to return to a time when there was no noise’, Anna gives as an explanation to a Lucas in slow motion, a Jason whom she just robbed of any future, before she recapitulates the trauma she suffered starting with the birth of their oldest child. Most grippingly, she emphatically suggests that there would have been time to ‘start again’, rejecting any blame on her part for the still-unravelling events. In drugging the children and stressing that their mother’s kiss would be the last thing they remembered, Stone’s Medea reproduces the Euripidean namesake’s sentiment that death by the hand of their own mother is more desirable than a life without her. With this final kiss she rejects the possibility of her sons falling behind their father’s new offspring. This scene highlights discussion around both the role of a mother and motherhood as a major theme in ancient and contemporary versions of the myth, as well as news coverage of so-called ‘family tragedy’.
After this gripping moment, Marie-Louise, originally the chorus-like social worker, takes over the role of a news reporter. In doing so, she transports the audience from a scene of ancient myth to one of contemporary tragedy. Her words eerily mirror the police reports from the Green case. Anna is huddled close to the bodies of her children, whilst a birds-eye view of their dead figures in the ashes slowly rotates on the ascending screen. We are left with a desperate Lucas kneeling on the stage before it turns blank, a few last traces of ash to accompany the silent man.
Medea dies with her children, a discrepancy to both the Euripidean and Green stories – and yet a brilliant way to recover the ending of the traditional Medea without a dea ex machina interference. Where Green is, rightfully one might add, sentenced and behind bars, the ancient Medea escapes judgement with the help of Helios and his dragon chariot. Anna, however, dies, together with her children, to be found, as Marie-Louise recalls, on a mattress which has fallen through the burned floor of their house. What remains is the inability to sentence her for her deeds (not taking into account the diagnosis of her mental health issues and medication) and a Jason/Lucas robbed of anything related to a future with family, old or new.
The sheer rawness of the emotion conveyed by the actors; the constant tipping of balances between clinical mental illness, captivating humanity and utmost hurt and despair on all parts, make this play one of the most brilliant performances of Medea. The intersections of the adult’s shortcomings with the boy’s attempts to trust their parents and cope within this tug-of-war of affection and betrayal gives the traditionally silent children a voice of their own and adds another layer of realism to a tragedy poignant throughout the ages. Interlaced with discussions of motherhood and personal sacrifices, Stone stages the Greek classic as a most contemporary story of the modern human condition. He masterfully draws on an unprecedented but not singular case of what psychologists termed a ‘Medea complex’, all the while involving varying perspectives of those affected.
Simon Stone’s Medea performed by the International Theatre Amsterdam will be shown at the Barbican from the 6th – 9th March. See here for more information.
Barbara Bollig’s current doctoral research is on the Medea myth, theories of mythologization, and the cultural implications of the Medea narrative in various research fields and within German literature since the Enlightenment. She is part of the Gesellschaft für interkulturelle Germanistik and the CePoG (the Center for Postcolonial and Gender Studies) at the University of Trier. Barbara has given conference papers on remythifications of the Medea story, the perpetuation of colonial stereotypes in contemporary literary depictions of the so-called European “refugee crisis”, and strategies of female empowerment in literature. If you would like to contact Barbara about her extended review or for any other matter relating to her research you can do so on this address: firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @bb_478