Phoenix Theatre Company made a powerful return to live theatre at the Assembly Rooms with a socio-politically charged rendering of Euripides’ Medea. Director, Emily Oliver, carefully pulled on the threads of female sexuality, abuse of power and the othering of minority groups to expose the universality of Medea’s story, despite the violent extremes which keep this production firmly rooted in the Classical Tragic tradition.
The initial tableau was in honour of Sarah Everard, which was projected to the back of the stage with the slogan “abuse of power comes as no surprise”. This highlighted the timelessness of Euripidean drama and how power has continued to be abused, particularly surrounding women and minority groups who continue to be rendered vulnerable by systems that refuse to protect them. It should be noted that the profits from the show are set to be donated to STAR (Student Action for Refugees), and that the tone of the performance certainly demonstrated appropriate anger for the societal shortcomings which have left so many people so unprotected.
The production featured an exceptionally strong cast, led masterfully by Charlie Culley who gave a compelling Medea, with her ability to switch from wronged wife, to seductress, to murderess, to grieving mother. She perfectly captured Euripides’ tragic heroine – a character so complex that she has been captivating audiences since 431BC. Culley took Medea’s emotionally fraught monologues in her stride and created palpable tension acting against Jack Coombs’ Jason. Coombs gave fresh life and real dynamism to the character, expertly portraying him as intrinsically weak, searching for status and masculinity in the post-heroic world in which he has found himself. The ease with which Jason can be manipulated by Medea was brilliantly acted – true to Oliver’s vision that Medea’s ability to utilise her sexuality does not make her a victim, it simply makes Jason feeble.
Emily Oliver and Producer Lamesha Ruddock should also be commended on their innovative multimedia approach to tackling the Chorus, choosing to have Giorgia Laird, Eloise Richmond and Honor Douglas give their emotive and cohesive performances via a video projected to the back of the stage. Though it could be said that the use of technology in this way interrupted the flow of the drama due to an abrupt change of pace after each video segment ended, the clips themselves were visually stunning and well-choreographed. Equally well thought through was the costume choice for the Chorus, with their white dresses throwing the Medea’s black robe into stark contrast, effectively foreshadowing the grief about to engulf the house. The costume change which saw the Chorus wearing wedding dresses for their final appearance transformed them into haunting spectres of the doomed marriage which had brought such great tragedy upon Corinth.
The way in which this production dealt with violence was a refreshing mix of the novel and the traditional, which proved very effective – this was no mean feat given that the violence of Greek Tragedy has challenged directors, both ancient and modern, since the days of the City Dionysia. Laird’s brilliantly delivered messenger speech, recounting the gruesome deaths of Creon and his daughter, was accompanied by an exquisite dance piece, performed by the very talented Hannah Langlois. Violence in Greek Theatre traditionally happens off stage, with the graphic details relayed to the audience by a third party afterwards, so Langlois’ visual interpretation of Laird’s speech was both unusual and impactful and gave greater depth to Robin Robertson’s translation of the text. By contrast, the deaths of Medea’s children were dealt with very traditionally, ensuring that this modern adaptation didn’t stray too far from its Classical roots; the full horror of Medea’s actions was only made clear when she emerged, cleaver in hand and drenched in blood, following the act of infanticide which has repulsed and fascinated audiences in equal measure for centuries. The choice to also have the Chorus’ hands drenched in blood was highly effective and a poignant visual echo of the extent to which their silence made them complicit in Medea’s scheme. Tech Director, Dragos Farcas, must also be commended for complementing the action so effectively with his lighting choice, drenching the stage in red, mirroring the heroine’s blood-soaked hands and symbolically red dress.
Almost as strong as the performances of the cast, was the set itself. Oliver harked back to the 2014 National Theatre production of Medea, directed by Carrie Cracknell, with the minimalistic set. In choosing to have the stage littered with moving boxes and sheet-covered furniture, Medea was effectively portrayed as a character occupying a liminal space, be it between Corinth and exile, victim and villain, or sanity and madness. Oliver’s stripped back approach to staging allowed the audience to better appreciate the elements of relatability in Medea’s story. The images of Culley curled up on the sofa, head on Eloise Richmond’s (as Aegeus) lap, or cross legged on the floor, cut Jason out of the family photos, making her seem as if she could almost be any wronged wife, abandoned for a younger woman. It was, of course, precisely this idea that Medea could almost be any woman which simultaneously terrified and fascinated the Athenian audience.
Overall, the whole cast and crew should be congratulated on a thoroughly enjoyable, visually powerful, and thought-provoking performance. This Greek Tragedy was accessible and entertaining to existing fans and newcomers alike, which is so crucial in keeping the tradition alive and relevant. The cast were incredibly talented, the directorial vision was clear and brilliantly executed, and the use of technology was innovative and bold – what a fantastic way to rekindle the Durham live theatre scene!