@sohoplace, 17thh March 2023
April 431 BCE. Day 5. City Dionysia. Athens. Aeschylus’s boy Euphorion has already paraded his dramatic wares as has arch-rival (and more successful) Sophocles. Euripides rocks up with his 3 tragedies, Dictys (no, me neither), Philoctetes (misanthropic soldier, later a winning tale for Sophocles) and, fortunately for us, Medea, as well as the mandatory satyr play, here Theristai (a p*ss take of tragedy with lots of dirty jokes performed by dancing fellas with comedy phalluses and clogs – hmm).
The audience, all blokes, no women (well maybe some but certainly not the posh wives and daughters) or slaves, knows the drill. A Chorus, here representing the women of Corinth to explain and react to the action. Incidental characters, a nurse, a tutor, a messenger, to advance the plot. Three men, Medea’s “husband” Jason, the king of Corinth, Creon, and his childless counterpart from Athens, Aegeus. And two silent boys. All played by men. In masks. With music and movement and in accordance with an established, if increasingly elastic, formal structure.
And, of course, Medea herself. A Barbarian other from Colchis across the Black Sea, sorceress trained by Hecate whose Auntie was Circe herself and whose granddad was none other than the sun-god Helios. Now she is the wife and mother of the aforementioned boys. Whisked off her feet by Jason, though hard to see why given his somewhat dick-ish qualities, there is a suspicion naughty matchmaker Aphrodite intervened. He has came from Iolcus with his crew on the Argo to purloin the Golden Fleece, which his usurper uncle, Pelias, rather rashly, had agreed to swap for the throne. (A complicated family history here involving rivers, rape, exposure on mountains, step-matricide, imprisonment, exile, a centaur as a stepdad and a missing sandal – standard issue Greek mythology).
Anyway, Jason nabbed the fleece, with a lot of help from Medea and her magic, having saved his bacon on multiple occasions, as he set about completing a bunch of somewhat ludicrous tasks set by its owner, Medea’s daddy King Aeëtes of Colchis. Unfortunately, this daddy promptly reneged on his deal and the only way to shake him off was for Medea to kill and chop up her (half) brother Absyrtus. Oops.
The run-aways, after seeing off a big bronze chap, turning Cretans into a bunch of liars, and Jason getting a fix of his Dad Aeson’s blood, returned to Iolcus. But, uh-oh here we go again, Pelias refused to give up the throne, so Medea, literally, cooked up a plan to kill him, involving his daughters, an old ram, a stew-pot and some herbs. Swift exit. Jason and Medea who end up in Corinth.
Which is where Euripides’s story kicks in. Jason plans to throw Medea over to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon (king of Corinth, keep up). Allegedly this will secure his, Medea’s and the kids’ position in Corinth. A likely story. Medea is badass mad and doesn’t mind who knows it. Creon reckons it’s safest to banish her and the children. And chickensh*t Jason isn’t going to argue with him. However, Medea is clever, very clever. Buys some time and hatches a plan. The screw inexorably tightens. Glauce, Creon and, infamously, (surely no spoiler alert required), but still distressingly, herchildren are victims of Medea’s wrath.
All this Bronze Age myth will have been familiar to our Athenian geezers via Hesiod and the like. So presumably they settled in to see how, as Congreve would have it, “heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned”, with the Barbarian being put firmly in her place. Except this was Greek drama and this was Euripides. If it were all so simple we wouldn’t be caught up in it near 2500 years later. His predecessors Aeschylus and Sophocles, albeit through more formal structures, had already used myth and history to shine an often critical light on Athenian, and Greek, politics, society and mores. Drama was supposed to educate as well as entertain and to innovate and provoke. It is hard to imagine that Euripides, who broke the rules seven years earlier with the tetralogy which included the surviving tragedy Alcestis (one of Pelias’s daughters), hadn’t already started to get under the skin of his peers with his ambiguity, irony, sarcasm, comedy, subversion, needling, gender awareness, rounded “human” characterisations and all round meta-ness.
So, I do wonder if the apparent shock of the children’s murder at the hands of their mother and her subsequent coup de theatre/deus ex machina escape sans chariot really was all that shocking. Maybe Euripides came third and last that year simply because the jury preferred the competition. Maybe belief in arete, eudaimonia, rhetoric, aporia, hypsos, mimesis, diegesis, pathos, nous, akrasia/enkrateia, prohairesis, phronesis and sophrosyne offset pilotimo, kleos, agon, esthlos and other such “manly” virtues. Easy enough to be temporarily sympathetic to the plight of women when you know that the patriarchy persists and you can go out and get lashed up with your mates on cheap wine when the play ends. And, by then, the Barbarians, which the Greeks used as signifiers to assert their own superiority, were anything but uncivilised, rapidly Hellenising and the source of the grain on which the polis depended.
And so we roll forward to 2023 and @sohoplace (why!!??). Perfect sightlines and acoustics in the round even if the seats are a bit of a squeeze for the fuller figure, the décor is bouji baffling and egress is a health and safety nightmare. Vicki Mortimer’s set, with off stage basement, is an elegant solution which dovetails with Dominic Cooke’s unfussy direction, albeit with a few a la mode tropes, glam metal pre-prologue, a rain shower in the closing episodes and a bit of slo-mo shuffling from Ben Daniels, who, smartly, is cast in all the male roles. A nod to Athenian practice which underlines the manifold character flaws of the three chaps; for me Euripides’s excoriation of the male gender is nearly as powerful as his exultation of the female.
Our chorus, Penny Layden, Jo McInnes and Amy Trigg, initially sat amongst us, for we are all voyeuristic Women of Corinth, and delivered the concise poetry of Robinson Jeffers’s classic 1947 adaptation, exquisitely. Music to the ears as it should be. Marion Bailey’s Nurse is the mirror of our own escalating helplessness and dread (even if you know exactly what is going to happen) and, for my money, has the best lines as she describes the deaths of Glauce and Creon.
So, given this text and performance, no excuse for even the constantly whirring brain of LB, a Greek tragedy virgin but now convert, not to be drawn in. Let’s be honest though, even with this clarity, it is only the mighty presence of Sophie Okonedo that turns this into a memorable evening. No great surprise. Check out her Cleopatra in Simon Godwin’s A&C alongside Ralph Fiennes, her Stevie, (now theirs is a wronged wife), alongside Damien Lewis in Ian Rickson’s version of Edward Albee’s Grecian homage, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? or her Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses (where Ben Daniels played Buckingham and which was also directed by Dominic Cooke).
Barking witch or feminist revenger? And/or everything in between? Sophie Okenedo makes all readings credible, making Medea entirely human, clever, powerful, logical, desperate, passionate, pleading, sardonic, even as she commits this most inhuman act. Perspectives are subtly highlighted, Medea’s otherness is contrasted with the white skin and flaxen air of Glauce, Jason’s futile mansplaining, Creon’s prideful ego, Jason’s devastation. A shout out too for Gareth Fry’s sound design which ratchets up the tension and doesn’t recede as some contemporary designs are wont to do.
Criticisms? We are done and dusted in 90 minutes so a little more breath might have been drawn to let us savour the text. The foregrounding of plot and character left the insights into the influence of the gods and the Greek mind somewhat hanging. Some of the movement felt a little “staged” – yes I am perfectly aware how daft that sounds but I know what I mean. And camping up Aegeus continues the long tradition of viewing him as a plot irritant. But all in all I would hope that punters came out knowing that Greek tragedy, for all it’s “then-ness” can be right, slap bang, of now.
Euripides. Remember the name.