Tuesday, October 16, 2007

2007 Cambridge Greek Play

Euripides, Medea
2007 Cambridge Greek Play, Cambridge Arts Theatre
Performance seen: Saturday 13th October 2007 (2.30 pm)

There was a time when the Medea was not amongst the most renowned of Euripides' plays. But the combined effects of Sir Denys Page's classic 1938 edition for schoolchildren, and the rise of the feminist movement, which saw themes in the play with which it sympathized, has brought it to prominence. It is now the most performed of all Euripides' works. Still, the chance of seeing three productions in the same year is rare, but that is what has happened in 2007. All three that I've seen have set the play in different types of patriarchal backgrounds, where male dominance is being challenged. In March London Ensemble Productions produced a Medea with a strong preponderance of Scottish accents, conjuring up the assertive masculinity of hard men in Glasgow tenements. Last month, Lazarus Theatre Company set the play against the background of an Afghanistan where Muslim are trying to emerge from the repression of the Taleban.

The Cambridge Greek Play chose to avoid the Muslim country background that is now common in modern settings of Greek tragedy, not least because they were one of the pioneers of it in the 1998 production of Trojan Women, set in the Balkans. Instead, Annie Castledine and Clive Mendus' production takes place in 1912 England. The background is the challenge to male patriarchy that the suffragette movement represented, and the Chorus are clothed as suffragettes. This presents a different dynamic between Medea and Chorus to that normally seen. In most cases, the Chorus are Medea's friends, and their support for her is initially offered out of friendship, until they are repelled by what she plans. By then, of course, she has trapped them into silence, and they can do nothing. This Chorus, on the other hand, supports Medea on ideological principle, because she is a woman. But at the same time, they are frightened of her, and retreat before her rages in terror.

The historical setting has another link back to the original performance. In 1912, England, and the rest of Europe, stood on the brink of a devastating war. That was also the case for Athens in 431 BC - Sparta's ultimatum had been rejected in the previous months, and as the City Dionysia took place in March, Theban troops were attacking Plataea.

Less successful are the occasional brief Edwardian song-and-dance routines performed by the Chorus. I appreciate that movement and music should be part of any Chorus, and approve of all attempts to convey that. But it doesn't always work, and these examples are too reminiscent of Half A Sixpence for my liking.

A more successful injection of music, perhaps, is the sing-song delivery of Holly Strickland's Tutor - never quite an aria, but not quite normal speech either. Of the other secondary characters, Frances Stevenson's Nurse is seemingly costumed in oriental dress, which looks a little odd juxtaposed with the 1912 setting for everything else. Robert Lloyd-Parry, being older than many of the undergraduate cast, brings a gravitas to Aegeus that might otherwise be missing, though he is still portrayed as a slightly buffoonish figure, as is common (it is possible to bring more depth to the character, as the Lazarus production showed). All these are wholly competent. All the actors deliver the Greek in such a way as to indicate that they know the meaning of what they are saying, not just the sounds, though some, such as Matthew Hiscock's wheelchair-bound Creon, cannot conceal that this is not their first language.

The only wrong note is sounded by Virginia Corless' Messenger. Clad in modern dress, when she arrives on stage she leaps over one Chorus member, and kicks another up the bum. This portrayal of the messenger as a trickster figure, for me, drains the pathos from what she has to say - the full horror of what she is reporting is not conveyed, because really, she doesn't seem all that bothered by it herself.

The key relationship in the play is that between Jason and Medea. All three productions I have seen this year have chosen to present that relationship as one which retains a great passion and desire, especially on Jason's part. Marta Zlatic, an impressive Hekabe in 1998, plays Medea as a monster, but a compelling one. She has an excellent foil in Misha Verkerk's Jason. Not only does he deliver the Greek convincingly, he is extremely handsome; one can see why any Greek woman should want him, and why none would want to give him up.

Castledine is quoted in the programme as telling her cast never to judge Jason too harshly. At first this seems odd. Doesn't Euripides himself judge Jason harshly? In the debate between them both, it seems obvious that Medea is the winner, and the Chorus as much as tell him that they are not going to be taken in by his sophistry. But some of the things Jason says would have been heard differently by the original audience. When he tells Medea that she is privileged to have lived amongst Greeks instead of barbarians, a modern audience laughs at such blatant chauvinism. But an Athenian audience would have agreed with Jason. They would probably have done so again when he says that it is better for wives to be sensible when their husbands find new bedmates. So perhaps Castledine has a point.

She certainly gives Jason the last word, after an impressive deus ex machina scene (as with Bacchae, the deus ex machina is also the protagonist of the action). Euripides' text ends with five lines for the Chorus. This is cut here, making the last utterance the despairing curse upon Medea of the devastated Jason.

A last noteworthy point is that there is an element of performance in the round in this staging. There is seating at the back of the stage. I presume the intent is to recapture some of the intimacy and sense of community of an Athenian staging, but for those in the stalls, like me, then the performers addressed the seats on stage, they often had their backs to us, and it became a distancing element. More successful was the musicians, not only placed on stage, but reacting to the action as if they were part of it.

Overall, this version is a success. If it is the least of the three Medeas I have seen this year, and definitely not as enjoyable as UCL's stunning 2006 production, this should be taken as an indication of the high standards set by those productions, not an indication of any failing by this.

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