Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Medea, The Hub – Main Hall, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Stunning. Searing. Spectacular”

Liz Lochead’s new translation of Euripides’ Medea left me speechless, groping for superlatives – or indeed any words to describe the experience I’d just been through.

Raised up on a catwalk, surrounded by a throng of people, the tragedy is played out and we are powerless to intervene or avert the catastrophe

Medea, for love of Jason, left her home and family, used her magic to enable him and the crew of the Argo to pass though untold perils and win the Golden Fleece.  Now, living in Corinth, she sees Jason turn from her and their three children and prepare to wed Glauke, daughter of King Kreon.  The king banishes Medea and her children, at her plea granting her a day in which to prepare for her departure.  Jason and Glauke both visit her and urge her to leave the children with them: she pretends to agree.  Her hatred of Jason leads her to poison Glauke and then kill the children so that finally Jason will feel pain, and her pain will be lessened by seeing his suffering.

The essence of tragedy is to see events unfolding and be unable to prevent them.  We are to some degree prepared by the opening lament of Medea’s nurse: would that the Argo had never been built, the voyage never undertaken, Medea never met Jason – but that’s impossible, and we have to witness raw, uncensored emotions as the tragedy unfolds.

Liz Lochhead’s new translation makes the drama immediate, vivid, gripping, and frighteningly relevant to today’s world – ‘mansplaining’, dismissing ‘hysterical females’, refusing to admit that women also have brains or allow them any power or control over their own destinies – or even their own children – are all on display in this ancient tragedy. 

It’s a very clever piece of work, very funny at times while also making you want to weep with compassion, fury and frustration.  It exposes the cruelty of people towards anyone they see as ‘other’, and underlines the otherness on stage by casting a Black woman with an English accent as Medea herself while the ‘civilised’ Greeks are all white-skinned, most probably blue-eyed, and all speak good honest Scots.  It’s a darkly tragic piece too, unsparing of the details of the horrors which, mercifully, we don’t see on stage.

The cast are outstanding.  Adura Onashile’s Medea is unforgettable, howling out her grief, driven to unthinkable acts, and yet in an instant able to transform to smiling compliance with the Greeks’ demands.  Robert Jack’s Jason is ridiculously skilled at making out that nothing is his fault and that all his actions are for the very best motives and driven by concern for others.  Stephen McCole’s Kreon is quietly powerful and determined that what he wants will happen.  Alana Jackson is so young, so shiny, so blonde, so self-centred, so catty…  Anne Lacey is a quiet, self-contained witness to all the horror and Adam Robertson holds us in the palm of his hand as he recounts the horrors he witnesses at the wedding of Jason and Glauke.  The chorus of women were highly effective and superb in their precision and unity as they commented on and were part of the action.  The three children did extremely well.

The set was simple, the lighting effective, and James Jones’ subtle percussion score with whispers of sound, rustlings, shiverings, and the selective use of a large portentous-sounding gong illuminated and supported the action without ever becoming intrusive.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a good production of the Greek tragedies: I remember some brilliant ones at the Nottingham Playhouse in the seventies, but the plays seem to have fallen out of fashion – strange, since they deal with timeless, universal dilemmas and basic raw emotions.  And as the Greeks knew, becoming involved in the tragedy is cathartic: one feels washed clean and relieved of the pain and torment that one suffered during the performance 

Simply sensational.

Edinburgh International Festival, Medea, The Hub- Main Hall, for tickets go to: Medea – Main Hall | Edinburgh International Festival (eif.co.uk)

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