Euripides' Medea
Directed by Mark Fleishman and Jenny Reznek
Arena Theatre
Cape Town
South Africa

Reviewed by Betine VanZyl Smit

Each year seems to bring fresh interpretations of Euripides' Medea, Colchian princess, witch, lover and wife of Jason and murderess of their children. The present production of this tragedy has been so extensively reworked that some of our students who knew the original were somewhat confused. Nevertheless, familiarity with the Greek drama and the Argonautic myths makes the rapid and sometimes startling momentum of this production more easily intelligible. The key to much of the action lies in physicality. Mime and dance combine with music, song and dialogue in a variety of languages to convey the drama. I have not been able to ascertain who was finally responsible for the altered script but assume that the most important were the directors Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznik and the choreographer Alfred Hinkel.

This Medea is presented on an open stage filled with sand. At the back of the scene are double doors reminescent of Greek tragedy and above these a kind of balcony. The simplicity of the decor lends itself well to the representation of different locations - Corinth, Colchis, a sea journey, Iolkos and finally Corinth again. Before the play commences two small boys in modern dress are building sand castles. Shortly afterwards, in the halflight, a female figure (Medea's Nurse) is discernible burying something in the sand. The object of her efforts was the Golden Fleece; the scene recalled the opening of Grillparzer's Medea, the last drama in the trilogy 'Das Goldene Vlies'.

The first scene of the drama proper contains much the same information as that of Euripides. Medea learns that Jason is to marry Creon's daughter. Creon appears on the balcony in the guise of a tinpot dictator (trenchcoat, dark glasses etc.) and pronounces sentence of banishment. His fear and loathing of Medea and the 'barbarity' she represents are apparent. The shocked Medea is then 'assaulted' by the chorus who consist of a group of trenchcoated young men and women who in energetic dance mime the battery and rape of Medea. It is noteworthy that this Medea enjoys no sympathy from the local population. As she lies totally defeated and defenceless she is vigorously upbraided by her Nurse, a 'Coloured' woman, in Afrikaans, the language developed at the Cape from Dutch and spoken by the majority of 'Coloured' (mixed race) inhabitants. The Nurse's shrill 'Staan op!' (Get up) exhorts not only Medea but through her metaphorically all the disadvantaged and exploited to stand up against their 'civilized' exploiters. As a result of the Nurse's appeals Medea literally and figuratively picks herself up and once again becomes Colchian Medea. The inner change is represented outwardly when she removes her Western style, smooth-haired wig to reveal a strikingly shorn and leopard spotted coiffure.

A flashback to Colchis follows. This is introduced as a story told to the children about their ancestry. The chorus strips off their trenchcoats. Clad in loincloths they gambol and chatter like a crowd of unspoilt primitives. Into this happy scene bursts the noise of a helicopter and Jason appears, lowered from the sky like some god. (He is subsequently several times described as godlike by Medea). The actor playing Jason is exceptionally tall and dressed in a modern black suit which isolates him visually amongst the multicoloured loincloths of the Colchians. The initial fear and bewilderment of the Colchians turns to friendly inquisitiveness about the stranger. Aeetes,a barbarian monarch clad in a coat made from the Golden Fleece, speaks Tamil and demands the purpose of Jason's visit. Medea acts as interpreter between her father and the handsome stranger. Aeetes is outraged at Jason's insistence that he has to take the Golden Fleece back to Iolkos to enable him to become king like his father before him.

Jason is set the task of yoking the firebreathing bulls, sowing the dragon's teeth and killing the armed men. As in the tradition, Jason accomplishes this with the aid of Medea's magic in return for a promise that he will marry her and take her with him. The subjugation of the bulls and victory over the armed warriors are mimed very effectively by Jason with great physical movements and noise. The escape with the Fleece aboard the Argo is beautifully portrayed by the chorus members, who form the outline of a galley with their bodies while Jason and Medea consummate their passion with animalistic abandon.

Medea's betrayal of her brother is represented as a desperate bid on her part to prevent Jason from giving her back to her father now that he has the Fleece. The events in Iolkos again show her employing her magic to secure to Jason his kingship. 'I want to be king like my father and his father before him' is the somewhat pathetic refrain of this Jason whose splendid appearance is sadly contradicted by his unscrupulously selfseeking behaviour and cowardice when he is not pepped up by Medea's magic herbs.

Medea's revenge is preceded by her retrieving her magic chest which has also been buried in the sand in Corinth. She no longer wishes to conform to the Greek way of life. Their culture has ruined her life and her culture will provide the means of punishing them. The Euripidean messenger speech is given to Medea's Nurse who describes the death of Creon and his daughter in the customary gory detail. The murder of the boys takes place behind the scenes. Jason comes to look for them and when he searches in their sandcastle his hands emerge red with blood. This device has the dual purpose of indicating the fate of the children and also attributting to Jason some of the guilt for the horrific outcome of his relationship with Medea.

The merit of this production in my view lies in the fact that it is a serious attempt to interpret the ancient drama not only in terms of a precise time and place, South Africa in 1994, but to extend the application to all the conquered and exploited through the centuries who have been seduced by their sophisticated colonizers and ultimately betrayed. The universality is achieved by the simplicity of the set, the diversity of languages, English, Tamil, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and even some Latin, the mixture of modern, ancient and primitive as far as costume, dance and music are concerned and the retention of the Greek names. Anachronistic devices like the modern dress in some parts of the drama achieve their climax in the use of cellular phones by Medea and Aigeus, who has been turned into a divorce broker. These anachronisms link the action firmly with the present and are dramatically quite successful.This Medea is a timely reminder to South Africans rejoicing in their new freedom that a meeting of different cultures must be managed in a transparently fair and equitable way if disaster is to be avoided.

Betine Van Zyl Smit

(Betine Van Zyl Smit is Chairperson of the department of Latin at the University of the Western Cape.)

To see another review of the same production, click here.