Where: Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL
When: 5-22 March 2014, 7:45pm; 2pm matinees: 18, 20, 22 March
How long: 1h30
Euripides is probably my favourite playwright and I’d be hard-pushed to come up with a favourite of his many wonderful works – okay, it’s Helene – but Medea is certainly up there in the top three. It’s an extraordinary play that’s still shocking, with Medea killing her own children partially in vengeance at the way her husband, Jason (of the Argonauts fame), has deserted her in favour of a new wife. Not only did it effectively wipe out previous notions of both Medea and Jason, with much of what we know about both actually likely to have been inventions of Euripides, it largely overshadowed later inventions, with only the occasional innovation (such as her chariot being drawn by dragons or serpents) having stemmed from later sources. It also has one of the most memorable feminist speeches in theatre history, one that not even Shakespeare can really challenge.
Now it’s been revived again at the Riverside Studios by Theatre Lab, a London-based group of fringe actors who every year put on a new production of a Greek tragedy, with Antigone, The Oresteia and Lysistrata among their previous productions. As I’ve remarked before, it can be hard to perform Greek tragedy for a modern audience, since it can be very static if not done right; it can also be very inaccessible or even laughable if adhered to too closely, since it can involve song, dance and even masks, depending on how rigorous the director wants it to be; and if directors decide to innovate too much, in can be very silly and even pointless (“I decided in this production of Agamemnon to explore the parallels between the Greek women and Albanian sworn virgins”).
Theatre Lab are a pretty reliable bunch and of the various fringe performers that put on Greek tragedy, they’re the best of the lot. Indeed, I’d rate their production of Antigone over the National’s recent version starring Christopher Eccleston, which despite some fine acting missed the mark by a country mile.
Theatre Lab try to be as authentic as possible to the original text, while using modern production values to bring it to life. And on the whole, Medea fits into this ethos very well, sticking closely to the text while coming up with innovative ways to depict, for example, Medea’s god-gifted escape vehicle in the absence of any flying chariots that they could use:
Their continued use of Daemonia Nymphe to provide live, ancient Greek-style music, singing and even dancing is creditable and gives a unique atmosphere to the production as well.
However, at times the production crosses over from the merely innovative into the somewhat mannered and pretentious, evoking unprompted laughter from the audience. Marlene Kaminsky is charismatic and compelling as Medea, her accent also making her Colchis-born character suitably foreign in contrast to the English-sounding Greeks. But her vocal and glossal gyrations tend towards the Xena-esque at times, while her physicality, often used well, sometimes becomes an excuse for artificial dance movements, designed mainly to add motion to the show rather than because they’re necessary for the character.
She’s not alone, however, with the play's chorus of Corinthian women doing synchronised leaning and even self-strangulation at various points. And in the absence of any child actors for Medea to strangle, either on-stage or off-, director Anastasia Revi gives her some, erm, child-sized trainers to focus her attention on and even wear when necessary.
Appropriately enough, George Siena reprises his role of Creon from Antigone, doing well in the additional parts of Aegeus and the messenger, too. However, Tobias Deacon, who was Orestes in The Oresteia, here is Jason and appears to be in a different play from everyone else. While it’s a good, naturalistic performance, Deacon is very much interpreting it as a comedy – until the inevitable happens, of course – and it’s hard to imagine him being the Jason who sailed to the ends of the Earth and slew a giant serpent. Whether or not it’s because Deacon can’t quite imagine in a post-feminist age anyone seriously mouthing some of the misogynistic statements Jason posits, I couldn’t say, but while it does help an otherwise dark play to be more endurable, it sits oddly with the rest of the production.
Nevertheless, if you can control your natural tendency to titter when it all becomes a bit too I, An Actor, this is a very good, accessible production that brings out the play’s many meanings, gives depths to the characters and is always engaging. As with other Theatre Lab productions, a must-see if you like Greek tragedy done well.