Euripides' Medea
directed by Jonathan Kent
with Diana Rigg in the title role

Almeida Theatre from 10 September 1992
Wyndham's Theatre 13 October 1993 - 26 February 1994,
London, England

Reviewed by Dougal Blyth,
Department of Classics,
University of Auckland,
Auckland, New Zealand.

In performance Greek tragedy intrudes insistently on our senses with the raw presence of a sub-heroic humanness. It does so despite the grace of its formal structures, and in contrast to the way the language of its sister art, epic poetry, projects a sense of the very absence of the heroic past there recalled. In tragedy even the inhumanity within us wears the very immediate and human face of a Creon, a Jason--or a Medea. That at any rate is the burden of production, a burden well shouldered in Jonathan Kent's Medea.

We grasp Euripides' dramatic meaning when we recognise that the language of his text must be spoken by human characters in whom other non-verbal, non-social forces are at play as part of their and our shared human nature. In Medea the social conventions of marriage, hospitality, gift-giving and promises are eventually all rejected or abused by the three main characters whose superficially civil pursuits of uncivil ends culminate in results of appalling inhumanity. Language is the pre-eminent social convention, and it functions as medium for the mirage of civilisation in which we are normally so completely, yet so contingently enveloped. The abuse of conventions in Medea corresponds with a depiction of language as itself a pawn in the hands of those uncivilised forces in the soul which are released by any sufficiently serious threat to our conventional interests and the world they constitute.

Accordingly, to view the language - the text - of such a play as its whole, and to interpret the action as language turning against itself, reducing itself to 'indecipherable cries, inarticulate sobs and pounding noise' (as does Mary Beard in a passage quoted as a programme note to this production) is to overlook the demands of staging, and to blame the victim. In Medea we are shown that the very interests which we normally hold most sacred - such as the care of our children - are themselves constituted and sustained by the world of those conventions which the characters persistently flout. This is a part of the play's significance which cannot be demonstrated from within the conventional world of language and civilisation, but only in that other sacred space of drama, where the measure of our humanness, our conventions, our language, and our interests can be taken without actually destroying them all. What Euripides measures is the civilising value of convention, and what sustains that.

The play's unit of measure spans the gap between the natural desire to belong and Medea's foreignness. Her barbarian magic is roused by Jason's denial of responsibility for those who most belong to him (Medea and their children) in order that he might belong to the city. When he and Creon reject and expel Medea, extinguishing her capacity to belong, they undermine her adherence to the norms of conventional social life. Thus in her are released those raw demonic forces to which the conventions of language, of civil society, and even obligations of blood are foreign - forces normally entranced and passified within us by the mirage (or, on another view, the saving grace) of language. The image of the demonic priestess of Hecate, hands dripping with her children's blood, gloriously rising above the stage in a magic chariot, would be a more articulate warning than any number of epic hexameters of the cost of denying to any human being, Greek or barbarian, the dues of their belonging. Even the value of children as extensions of ourselves, something which seems most natural, finally is shown to depend upon the conventions of marriage and city which bind those who belong together.

Jonathan Kent's production of this play is measured and muted in effects which gives to those he does allow a stunning force. In Elliot's supple translation the cast managed to imbue the speeches with a paced urgency which despite Medea's extensive deliberation seemed to lead inexorably to the shocking climax. The characters were well animated, as far as Euripides' schematic drawing would allow, without intruding upon the dramatic rhythm of the plot. Tim Woodward's Jason evaded moral examination, John Turner's Creon was a cipher of cynical political calculation and the minor characters and chorus of three were engaging, but also morally ambiguous. Rigg seemed more female than barbarian, more humanly struggling than demonic. The impressive potency of her presentation and delivery lay in the humanness she maintained masterfully until the very end, in which the image I described above was severely truncated. The continuity of this female humanness with the vindictive butchery belonged, I think, to the production, not the text, but completes the latter in one legitimate way, and indicates the demand upon any interpretation to allow for such extra-linguistic definition.

The set, designed by Peter J. Davison, was dominated by the reddish brown plain wall of a two storey building, and was otherwise very bare. The detachable metallic panels of which the wall was composed were used very effectively and resoundingly to reveal the climactic tableau, but at first the set worked well to prepare a premonitory sense of Medea's isolation in a small, hot, and dusty Greek town, and the sweaty inconvenience all her visitors feel. Choral songs too were performed in a fairly minimal although commendably melodic fashion. Overall Kent's direction showed a happy marriage of the difficult potential of an ancient text with the techniques and technology of modern theatrical tradition, contributing to a testament to Euripides' persistent dramatic power.

Dougal Blyth

Dougal Blyth is a lecturer in Classics.