Spier Arts Centre, Cape Town, SA
Reviewed by Betine Van Zyl Smit,
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, SA
This remarkable performance of the story of Medeia's love for Jason and its disastrous consequences provided a fresh reinterpretation of the Medea story from the ancient world. It drew from Euripides, Apollonius, Ovid and Seneca, but also from modern interpreters such as Pasolini and Müller. The immediate source of director Brett Bailey's script was that of the Dutch company Dood Paard's 1998 production, developed by Oscar van Woensel and others, but Bailey relocated the action in a post-colonial African wasteland. The play was performed by Third World Bunfight, a company of young black actors sponsored by the Spier Arts Foundation and trained by Bailey.
I attended the performance on 23 March 2005. It was a hot, still evening and ideally suited for an outdoor presentation. The audience, which was limited to 50 per night, met at a pavilion on Spier farm (about twenty miles from Cape Town) and, at the time set for the start, were led on an approximately 10 minute walk into the veldt. This explained the injunction to theatregoers to 'wear your walking shoes'. Guides with torches shepherded the spectators along. After a short while music could be heard and, approaching closer, one could see that it was coming from a group of dancers in the yard of a shack at the edge of a shantytown. (This shantytown was constructed as the set where the film uCarmen eKhayelitsha, a Xhosa version of Bizet's Carmen, was shot.) The squatter camp served as the set for the play very much in the way it could be used as a film set with different scenes taking place in different parts of it. However actors and audience moved together from one part of the set to the next as the play progressed. The audience found their own seats, sometimes on benches and sometimes on rugs on the ground. It was difficult to keep track but there were altogether about twenty such changes of scene in the course of the play.
The first scene was played in the yard where the audience entered the camp. A shack formed the backdrop. In the centre of the sandy yard, a tree trunk grew from a clump of rocks. Around this centrepiece the African women who made up the Chorus danced and sang. Musical accompaniment was provided by percussion instruments, such as rattles and sticks beaten together. All the women of the Chorus wore white dresses and white cloths around their heads. The only exception was the young Medeia, Jill Levenberg, who was clad in gold cloth. The older Medeia's face was grey, covered in ash to symbolize her sorrow and suffering. The young Medeia led the dance while the older Medeia, Faniswa Yisa, waited, silent and still, at the side.
The first dialogue was spoken by the Nurse, now flanked by both Medeias. This device of showing Medeia at the two most important times in her life was in line with the achronological presentation of the action. The young Medeia in her beauty, in love and happy, would become the mature woman, harrowed by her experience of love and betrayal. At the same time when the older Medeia was the focus of attention, the presence of the younger was a constant reminder of her former state. The Nurse set the scene, 'far away from Jason's country', Colchis, a primitive community, but part of the world where the quest for money and power leads to war. Suddenly the wall of the shack fell away and behind the shack a scene of fire, rape and pillage was revealed. Jason and the Argonauts had arrived. In their quest for the Golden Fleece they looted and rampaged. The Nurse sombrely warned that worse was to come. The audience was prompted to follow the actors into the backyard where the meeting between Medeia and Jason (Mangaliso Sauka) took place. The insurgents were bare-chested and clad in red trousers and hoods. In spite of the Nurse's warning to Medeia not to fall in love, she saw Jason, the leader, as her opportunity to escape from her confined life. She danced for him and asked him to take her away. She was prepared to lose everything as long as she could have his love and go with him. In the African setting, Jason and the Argonauts became another of the marauding bands of fighters causing death and misery in many parts of the African continent.
The scene changed again. Actors and audience made their way along a path lit by candles in plastic bottles and came to a primitive village scene. Light was provided by a pickup truck parked at the side. This mode of lighting is often used in shantytowns without electric power. Medeia's face was daubed with mud while the chorus spoke and yelled in Xhosa. Two men with ox horns on their heads gave Medeia advice. Their viewpoints were opposed: the one supported her: 'Love is what you need.' But the other said no, this was wrong and love was nothing. Medeia picked up the Golden Fleece and clambered the hill behind the village. She ran home, crying because she did not know what to do. She knew that it was wrong to betray her people and leave with Jason, but she wanted to follow the voice of her heart. The Chorus' song of sorrow warned of future suffering.
The Chorus advised Medeia in the next scene that she was making the wrong choice.
Another change of scene took the action back to the urban, shantytown landscape. Jason was waiting, casually smoking a cigarette. Medeia had brought him the Golden Fleece. The lovers kissed. This was immediately followed by the narration of Medeia's murder of her brother. Jason, it was said, did not know what to say. This scene hinted at the violence to come as well as the fact that Medeia's kind of ruthlessness was too strong even for a hardened adventurer like Jason.
The suspense about the ultimate nature of the relationship between Jason and Medeia, the fate of their children and the nature of Medeia's revenge that usually forms the core of the structure of plays that deal with the Medea myth, was deliberately downplayed by the device of juggling the chronology of the events. For instance, shortly after the start of their voyage away from Colchis and the murder of her brother, the older Medeia was shown with her hands red, now also guilty of the killing of her children. In this scene Jason accused Medeia of betraying her country, her family and even her children because of jealousy. He called her 'witch'. She could not accept the kind of world and life Jason gave her. The Chorus' rationale was that human beings wanted more from life than the life of this couple had provided.
This commentary on the expectation of people to find 'perfect love' as portrayed in pop songs and mass culture was one of the themes of the play. The lyrics of pop stars such as Madonna, R.E. M. and the Beatles provided some of the words and catchphrases. The Chorus sang: 'love hurts', 'love is a battlefield'. They added to this their insight about the powerlessness of women 'everywhere all the time', but, in spite of this knowledge they too were powerless to prevent the action from taking its course: 'I can't stop it. I am the Chorus.' Women are unable to influence the course of history. Their role is to suffer and at most to bear witness, but they are impotent to intervene in the tragedy.
The action reverted back to the time of happiness for Medeia as she sailed with Jason on the Argo to Greece. A love scene set on board the ship carrying the Golden Fleece back to Pelias in Iolkos was played out to the accompaniment of quiet singing of love by the Chorus. Jason and Medeia made love and promised each other that their love would last forever. Medeia was on top and after their embrace she smoked a cigarette thus portraying her calm conviction that she was in control of her life. This was undercut by the older Medeia appearing on a neighbouring platform dangling the two dolls, used to symbolize the children, over the edge. Thus, once again the theme of the inevitability of disaster in Medeia's love story was indicated. Happiness in the present would turn to anguish later.
As the company and the audience made their way to yet another scene, an open-sided shack revealed an actor clad in what could be termed 'African dictator's costume', a military uniform and cap and sunglasses. His Excellency for Life, King Pelias, lounged on top of a washing machine in a room filled with other home appliances such as TV-sets and music centres so that it resembled a furniture store. The representation of Pelias was a satire on another aspect of post-colonial Africa where some leaders live in luxury while their compatriots suffer poverty.
The scene moved to the market at Corinth. Now there was talk about Medeia, about her dark powers and how she had tricked Pelias' daughters into killing their father. The people of Corinth treated Medeia as an outsider. The theme of xenophobia raised by the treatment of Medeia by the Corinthians is another problem in contemporary society, in South Africa and elsewhere. In a flashback scene a boat in the veldt surrounding the shantytown showed Jason and Medeia aboard the Argo, still in love. The Chorus commented that she did not know that it was the worst trip she had ever taken. Another scene in Corinth showed Medeia in a cage, holding a baby. The cage indicated her situation. She was a stranger in Corinth, barred from taking part in normal life there, but unable to return to the home she had betrayed. The Chorus related how Jason was having fun with 'rich white women'. He promised he would come home, but she had to wait.
The audience were taken back to the scene of the arrival of Jason and Medeia in Corinth. King Creon welcomed Jason as a hero and Medeia as his wife. This reception scene also served as interval when the audience were offered traditional South African township food, soup in tin mugs and 'vetkoek', a batter cake fried in oil. While the audience were enjoying the food, Jason was bathed and clad in a suit similar to Creon's. He also put on dark glasses. The resemblance to a member of the Tonton Macoute in Haiti pointed to another facet of Jason's character. As Argonaut he was a violent adventurer by sea and land. In Greece he adapted to the reigning fashion of macho display and behaviour.
After the interval followed singing, dancing and jubilation, but Medeia was silent.
Creon announced that Jason would marry his daughter. He was king and his word was law. Medeia's appeal to justice failed but she obtained a day's grace for a last goodbye.
The next scene went back to Medeia and Jason's house in Corinth. As Jason and Medeia lay in bed the Chorus narrated how they lived there and had two sons. Medeia took care of the children. It was beautiful to see life growing from love. Jason kissed Medeia and went out. This scene of a happy family was in contrast with the previous scene where the family had been shown disintegrating. The Chorus further told of how Medeia became lonelier as things changed. She was alone in their small house while Jason was out all night dancing. The Corinthian women were afraid of her and she was sad and depressed. Here Medeia represented the many women who are first slighted and then spurned by their husbands. The women are left wondering where, when and how things went wrong. Medeia realized that Jason no longer loved her body and had forgotten his oath that they would always be together.
In contrast to Medeia's isolation in their house, Jason was shown being fêted by Creon. He sat drinking with other men in a shebeen. Jason met Creusa, dressed in a school gymslip, as if to emphasize the age difference with the cheerless older Medeia. Jason wanted to have fun while at home his wife sat brooding.
Another scene at their house showed Medeia realizing that her life with Jason was over. What was to have been 'forever' had ended. Jason was still celebrated at parties as a great hero but she had no part in his life. When he came home and she tried to reproach him for his ingratitude, he, in his drunkenness refused to listen to her but claimed that he was assuring their future. They would be rich. If Medeia had not come with him she would still have been a 'stupid little priestess in a stupid little country'. She only had to be reasonable and everything would be fine. When Medeia said no and refused to accept his decision, Jason raped her. This shrill contrast to their former lovemaking illustrated the disintegration of their love. Jason abused Medeia in colloquial terms like 'fucked up' because she couldn't understand that he wanted only good things for the children. Medeia's anger turned to threats of revenge. She cursed Jason to wander as a foreigner in strange lands. As Medeia thought about the past the young Medeia sat silently in the room embodying all that was now lost.
Medeia then prepared the dress that would kill Creusa and Creon. Her determined actions and the Chorus' prediction that something terrible was coming set the scene for the murder of her children.
Next Jason was shown crying over his loss. Medeia accused him of having fallen for Creon's gold. She was no longer afraid or hesitant but felt that she was a virgin again (this idea was taken from Seneca's version) and that a new life was beginning for her. Only the strong survive and she would prove that she was strong.
As the audience moved to a new scene, they passed a room where the bodies of Creon and Creusa lay, covered by sheets with a simple poster, 'King Creon R.I.P.'
Medeia called the boys for a bath. The bath, an ordinary zinc tub as used for laundry and washing in the shantytowns where there are no built in facilities, was placed on the stone pile in the centre of the yard. The last scene was set in the same yard where the play had begun. As the chorus danced to drumbeats and a soft song, the two Medeias, each holding a baby (doll), plunged it into the bath with the words, 'Don't cry, just die.' Then the older Medeia took the babies out of the bath as the Chorus asked whether she was leaving in the Sun's chariot. Medeia's last words to the audience were: 'To everyone who doubted me, I am saying "Fuck you!"'. The young Medeia had been dancing with the women of the Chorus for a while. The older Medeia joined them. Finally she was a woman amongst women again. It is clear that the Medeia of this play is a strong woman who is able to survive all the horror that she experienced and measured out. Yet her story as it was portrayed in this performance makes it clear that life is brutal. Love and happiness are purveyed as the ultimate goals but they are hard to keep even if briefly grasped.
Bailey's medEia was a bold undertaking. It took the audience into the desolate circumstances in which many people live. The audience participated in the life of a shantytown for the duration of the play. They smelled the dust, saw the rudimentary structures that served as shelters and sat on the bare benches or on the ground like the inhabitants of squatter camps. The play addressed themes such as the exploitation of the weak by unscrupulous adventurers, the impotence of women in many societies, xenophobia and the horror of love that has turned to hatred. The production was an ensemble effort with the dialogue reduced and much of the narrative coming from the Chorus, either sung or spoken in unison or by individuals. By representing the events in the relationship between Medeia and Jason in an order different from their chronological sequence Bailey succeeded in highlighting the harsh differences between the times of love and happiness and the times of betrayal, hatred and revenge. Medeia's shocking murder of her children was portrayed quite brutally but was an indictment not of Medeia only, but of the treatment she had received from Jason and from society. The Medeia of this play is a survivor, but she survives at the cost of losing all illusions about life and love.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape