Monday, February 27, 2006

2006 UCL Classics Play

Euripides, Medea, UCL Classical Drama Society, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre

Performance seen: 11th February 2006

I have long harboured the view that, on the whole, student and youth theatre doesn't do well with Greek tragedy, a viewed formed by some truly awful stagings of Oedipus Rex I was subjected to around the turn of the century. Recent productions seem determined to strip me of my prejudices. First there was Oxford's excellent Orestes. And now along comes Graham Kirby's self-assured production of Medea, under the auspices of the newly-formed UCL Classical Drama Society.

Kirby's production design is simple, yet subtle and effective. A bare room is suggested with a couple of walls and some minimal furniture. An architrave shows scenes from Jason's legend, such as the battle with the Hydra, or the murder of Pelias. Clever lighting contributes to the mood.

Kirby has provided a new translation of the play. One presumes, given the pedigree of the production, that it is true to the Greek (bar reasonable additions such as including the name of Creon's daughter, Glauke, which does not feature in Euripides' text). More importantly, it is an excellent piece of English writing. The lines flow with poetry, and one hopes that Kirby will be able to make this translation available for others to stage.

But of course a production of Medea must stand and fall on the central performance. Here the there is a pure treat, as Dena Arya is incandescent as Medea. From the moment the play opens, as she stands with her back to the audience, bewailing her fate in Greek (only when she switches to English does she show her face), it is clear that something interesting is about to happen. Clad in black slip, housecoat and boots, she is a classic 1970s bitch, such as the likes of Kate O'Mara, Faye Dunaway and Glenda Jackson have built careers on, the sort of fascinating woman that an audience should abhor, but will find themselves rooting for. This is exactly how Medea should be (it is, after all, this very quality that sucks the Chorus into its complicity with her). Arya is careful never to go over the top - she is passionate, but always believable. And she is always worth watching, even when someone else is involved in a long speech, whether it be the killing looks thrown Jason's way, or the almost sexual enjoyment she takes in hearing the fates of Glauke and Creon. Bar a short clip on The Late Show, I was not fortunate enough to see Diana Rigg's performance in 1993/94, which Kirby takes as the gold standard for the role. But I can say that Arya's is one of the best Medeas that I have seen, and definitely better than Fiona Shaw's boggle-eyed interpretation from 2001. Her final departure (perhaps the only deus ex machina in Euripidean tragedy that makes perfect sense) is presented as apotheosis, a notion I first saw in Phylidda Lloyd's 1991 production at Manchester's Royal Exchange.

It is hardly a slight to say that none of the rest of the cast quite measure up to Arya. But, after taking a while to warm up in the role, Adam Greves as Jason very nearly gives as good as he gets. Certainly, his performance underlines the fact that, for all his apparent reasonableness and rationality, Jason is an arse of the highest order. His arguments that he has chosen to marry again out of a desire to protect Medea and her children are so transparently self-serving and specious that it is almost unnecessary for Medea to tear them to shreds.

The other performance that deserves noting is Laurie Wilks as the Nurse. Kirby warns in his foreword to the programme that "elements of what might be called 'camp' have crept in", and so the audience is presented with a cross-dressing nurse, played by a man in woman's clothing, with the Tutor played by a woman dressed as a man. It shouldn't work. But it does, because Wilks imposes himself on the role with such utter conviction that the audience has no choice but to suspend any disbelief. All trace of camp are utterly banished, along with any inappropriate humour. The cross-dressing is exploited for one joke, but that is left to the curtain call.

The more naturalistic a production of Greek tragedy is, the more problematic the Chorus can be. In this staging, the Chorus are clad in black leotards and strips of white gauze. They enter masked, and periodically over the rest of the play they remove and replace their masks. Presumably there was meant to be a pattern to that, but I'm afraid I couldn't quite work out why. Yet, just when I was about to write off the Chorus as an element of the production that didn't quite work, that they didn't quite react enough to the events they were observing, suddenly the choreography gave real power to the way the actual (offstage) infanticide was played out. And I should add that my partner, whilst thinking that the Chorus could have looked better, was much more impressed by them than I was, considereding their speech and choreography to have been excelelnt throughout.

One might find a few elements to suggest didn't work. It might not have been necessary to underline the Messengers' account of Creon and Glauke's deaths with a mime of it from the actors, though other productions in the past (such as the Royal Exchange one mentioned above) have thought that it was. And the costumes of the Messengers, as typical Cockney barrow boys a la My Fair Lady might be considered a bit odd.

But then one thinks of Arya's performance or Kirby's translation, and nothing much else matters. Perhaps it's only the Oedipus Rex that students can't do. I await being proved wrong on that score with interest.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm just a little bit green here. :)

I haven't seen a decent performance of anything, let alone a Greek tragedy, for ages. The Theatre of the Town of Göttingen gets over the top with experimental (there are other positions for an actor than rolling around on the floor) and the Young Theatre hasn't yet managed to teach the students how to carry their voices without ressorting to shrieking like banshees.

Well, maybe the spring visit to Meiningen will result in something worthwile to watch. That theatre has a good renown.

Oh, and I saw Law Traviata in Stuttgart - the singing was pretty good and the presentation could have been worse. It was modern (Violetta in trousers and things like that) but not pushing along some message, like the Vienna Don Carlos which I watched in TV.

Gabriele Campbell said...

La Traviata - no idea how that w crept in there. Blogger should allow to edit posts. ;)

Anonymous said...

Is that a challenge?

Tony Keen said...

Graham, if anybody can do a student OT that doesn't suck (and believe me, I've seen some terrible productions), it's you and your cast and crew.

Anonymous said...

Tony, Thanks for your vote of confidence (and your review). I'll make sure we keep you up to date with any future plans in that direction.