Friday, September 28, 2007

Medea in Afghanistan?

Euripides, Medea
Lazarus Theatre Company at Theatro Technis
Performance seen: 27 September 2007

George Eugeniou's Theatro Technis in Camden is fifty years old this year. Given the Greek origins of its proprietor, it's not surprising that Athenian drama has featured regularly amongst its shows. I've seen an Andromache, and a Persians. A poster in the foyer records a past performance of Lysistrata.

And now they act as the venue for Lazarus Theatre's Medea, directed by Ricky Dukes. Medea seems quite popular at the moment. This is the second production I've seen this year (after an enjoyable staging by London Ensemble Production, back in March, which I never got round to blogging), and next month it will be the Cambridge Greek Play. And, taking into account last year's UCL play, it seems to bring out the best in companies.

Much play has been made in publicity for this production of it being set in Afghanistan.* In the end, that amounts to little beyond costuming, most notably giving the female cast members head-scarves, and the use of a jet bomber sound effect at the beginning and end of the play. And nothing about any of this says Afghanistan as distinct from any other Muslim or partially Muslim country, such Iraq or Kosovo or Bosnia. Over the past decade or so I've seen plenty of productions of tragedy that have dressed their casts much the same (I think immediately of the RSC's 2005 Hecuba at the Albery, starring Vanessa Redgrave). All that changes are the nations that one first thinks of when presented with such imagery.

Such universality is no bad thing, really. It certainly suits the text, which is a straight reading of the play, preserving all character and place names. Without the programme, one would assume that the play is set in Corinth, and so it should be.

There are a few changes. As often, the Tutor (Stephen Chertion) is given the Messenger's Speech. More unusually, the Chorus is reduced down to a single person. Lydia Larson delivers a disengaged and aloof Chorus - many of the lines where the Chorus are actively trying to dissuade Medea are given instead to the Nurse (Carrie Whitton), and some Chorus lines are even given to Medea. And the Chorus' greatest moment of horror and pathos - their indecision as Medea murders her sons, is cut altogether.

Kevin Cooke's Aegeus is less of a bumbling old fool and more of an ethically-minded statesman than I’ve seen in the past. And Cooke’s performance is so successful that I was surprised when I looked in the programme and saw that the same actor played Creon. I had not spotted this, so different are the performances.

A production of Medea stands or falls on its lead actress, of course. In Louise Coleman, Lazarus has a Medea who is compelling, who dominates the stage from when she first emerges through the doors from the backstage area. She is denied her apotheosis (as was the case in the production from March) - instead her final confrontation with Jason (played by David Seymour, who rises fully to Coleman’s challenge) is visceral, physical, and violent.

I don't think this production is as innovative as it likes to think it is. What it is, however, is a good solid production, that understands what the play is about, and doesn’t mess around. I could do with more like this.

* It's not really worth mentioning that the one piece of press coverage on display talked about classical drama being 'a millennia old'. Oh dear. On so many levels.

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