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March 14, 2014

Review: Medea (Riverside Studios)

Posted on March 14, 2014 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Marlene Kaminsky as Medea in Theatre Lab Company's Medea. Photo by Yiannis Katsaris

TheatreLab's Medea 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
Tickets: £17

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:

Medea in her serpent-drawn chariot

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.

Medea has moves

Meda and Jason dancing or something

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.

The wedding scene of Medea

Further reading
Euripides’ Medea
Medea (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World)
The Image of Jason in Early Greek Myth

January 10, 2014

Mini-review: Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted on January 10, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus

Where: Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX
When: 6 December 2013-8 February 2014. Broadcast to cinemas on 30 January
How long: 2h30 with 15 minute interval
Tickets from: £10 (you’ll be lucky, though)
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia and Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan PerssonCoriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus one of my favourite Shakespeare films/productions, and Tom Hiddleston’s one of my favourite current actors, so the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus was something I was looking forward to considerably. The story of a Roman general whose love of Rome is matched only by his hatred of the average Roman, it looks at the nature of democracy, how much we rely on people who might not have our best interests at heart but without whom we couldn’t survive, and the nature of politics and loyalty.

It’s also one of Shakespeare’s war plays. This is an important point because the Donmar is an intimate venue and having armies clash on stage isn’t really within its purview. Indeed, bar a couple of fight scenes employing some reasonably good stage jiu jitsu and swordfighting, the Donmar production is a resultantly somewhat talky affair, something that the director goes to considerable lengths to obscure, perhaps with one eye on the fact this will be beamed into cinemas at the end of the month. There’s all manner of things dropped from the ceiling, when the cast aren’t sat on chairs at the back of a scene watching proceedings they’re marching up and down stage to rearrange on them and stand on them, Tom Hiddleston gets his top off and has a shower, there’s climbing up and down ladders and walls - the list goes on.

Hiddleston is the headliner and although he’s very good, he’s slightly miscast for the role: Coriolanus is a cold, imperious eagle of a man, whom no one but another soldier could love; Hiddleston, despite his best efforts, is effortlessly charming and even amusing, light because of his age, rather than a venomous ball of entitlement. It doesn’t help that the director, Josie Rourke, aims for comedy whenever possible, which detracts from the play’s hard edge, or that Coriolanus' arch-enemy, Hadley Fraser’s Tullus Aufidius, is equally young and not especially threatening. Indeed, with his Saxon/Viking outfit and his army of Northerners ranked against Hiddleston’s Southerners, it sometimes feels like an episode of Game of Thrones, except Hiddleston is the Rob Stark of the piece, Fraser the Theon Greyjoy.

Also in the cast is TV’s Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who and Sherlock writer and actor, but let us not forget The League of Gentlemen), whose Menenius is perhaps more lounge lizard than need be, but he deals with both comedy and drama well. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Borgen) plays Hiddleston’s wife, but gets roughly five lines so you wonder why she bothered coming over from Denmark at all, other than for the experience. In fact, it’s Deborah Findlay, who plays Volumnia, Coriolanus’ wife, who comes out of the play best, effortlessly dominating every scene she’s in, in part thanks to a generous performance by Hiddleston.

It’s a good production, imaginative in many ways, but perhaps one that thinks its audience will balk at its relative bleakness and over-compensates.

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March 12, 2012

Mini-review: The Oresteia (Riverside Studios)

Posted on March 12, 2012 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Oresteia

Where:The Oresteia Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL
When: 29th February-24th March, 7:30pm; 2pm matinees: 6, 8, 13, 15, 20, 22 March
How long: 2h20 with 20 minute intervals
Tickets from: £15

Aeschylus's blood-soaked trilogy in just two hours? Amazing. Yet, using a 'translation' by Ted Hughes, Theatrelab, a Greek theatre company responsible for a very decent adaptation of Sophokles' Antigone at Riverside Studios two years ago, manages to get Agamemnon back from Troy then murdered by his wife Klytaimnestra, she in turn killed along with her lover by her son Orestes, and then have Orestes put on trial by the gods before Athens' first ever jury, all within the allotted span.

While you can quibble a least a bit with some of Hughes' translation, as a condensed version of the trilogy, it cuts away everything extraneous (and there's a lot) in favour of the essence of the story, resulting in a surprisingly fast-paced, accessible and engrossing play, particularly in the second act which manages to get through both The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides in an hour.

A lot of Greek tragedy when adapted for the stage can be very static, as was the case with Tough Theatre's Hippolytus, say, with characters essentially standing stock still on opposite sides of the stage exchanging lines. Here Theatrelab's director Anastasia Revi, who also directed Antigone, takes the opposite direction, filling almost every scene and exchange with movement. Sometimes this works very well, with Revi dramatising scenes, such as Agamemnon's bathing by Klyaimnestra, that usually take place off stage. Revi also deploys numerous directorial tricks and stagecraft to give modern relevance and visual impact to scenes.

Sometimes, however, she goes a little overboard - such as when there's 'synchronised falling' and 'swimming' across the stage by the chorus - it's hard not to avoid the occasional titter. All the same, you're never bored while you're watching.

The actors, many of whom were also in Antigone are fair to good, largely engaging and well cast - although some tend towards the plummier and more 'effusive' approaches to acting, shall we say? Set design is good as is wardrobe; there's even authentic Greek music played and singing at appropriate points. Possibly the only big let down is the seating, which is authentically rock solid:

Riverside Studios seating

You'd be hard-pushed to find better Greek tragedy in fringe theatre and it's no surprise that the company's previous production was commended as the best show in the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama in 2011 in Cyprus. Go watch it if you have any interest in Greek theatre.

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