Medea, the epitome of the destructive mother, the monster who kills her own children for revenge, has had a bad press ever since she was first portrayed in Greek legend 26,000 years ago. Her husband Jason (he of the Golden Fleece, and not the perfect hero we tend to think of, with a dodgy reputation as a murderer and betrayer of women) decides to banish her from Corinth where they have settled in exile. He wants to marry the daughter of King Creon, to acquire more power in the kingdom. She asks for and is given a day’s respite to settle her affairs which include, in her case, murdering Jason’s new wife by painting poison on her golden crown and robe, thus also bringing about Creon’s death; and finally killing her own children by Jason.
“Shock horror!” has been the universal response to this heinous crime, especially as she insists it is to punish Jason by murdering his heritage, and to deny him any other progeny by killing his new wife. It’s pure revenge, as she herself gains nothing from it, goes into exile, and may or may not be destroyed herself (the legends vary on this point).
It’s one of the greatest stories ever told, but Euripides makes it clear that in Corinthian culture she really had no other choice. It’s obvious that she loves her children, but if she left them behind with Jason, they would be at risk from their new stepmother, and if she herself remarried, her new husband would almost certainly kill them.
It’s a moral dilemma, but made more heinous when she adds the motive of revenge on Jason. The situation is not black and white as the ancients would have it, and it easily finds parallels with contemporary domestic situations. So how do Zen Zen Zo and their new resident director Drew der Kinderen handle this gut-wrenching tale?
As with all ZZZ productions, it’s immaculately staged. In the unfriendly spaces of Brisbane’s Old Museum building, a simple but effective set is constructed solely with white drapes, some back projections, concrete pillars and a couple of handy doors. Julian Napier’s costumes are a successful marriage of ancient and modern, and impressive in their simplicity. Thomas Murphy from the band The Bloodpoets gives us a haunting score, and overall designers Christine Urquhaut and Rachel Konyi are young merging artists to keep an eye on.
But the actors let the whole production down. As with all ZZZ interns, the chorus members are impeccably trained physically, and move with classical perfection. But their speaking voices are down-market Australian, which detracts from the power of the text. Like the main actors, they fall into the trap of trying to display emotion by ranting and shouting, rather than relying on the power of low-key speech free from overt emotion. And the men, excluding newcomer Eric Berryman as Jason, just yelled and emoted rather than creating real characters. Even Lauren Jackson, last year short-listed for the Matilda Best Emerging Performer award, came across as a weak, self-pitying victim rather than the ultimate strong woman who takes power into her own hands. There was no menace in her voice, very little to condone in her behaviour, and nothing to empathise with. Such a pity, as every other element was of the highest order.
Medea is a great play and, of all classical Greek literature, shows us how universal human emotions and behaviour are. “People change, and smile, but the agony abides.” This production showed a firm understanding of the meaning of the text, but the company needs to work more on their players’ acting skills rather than depending on the undoubted perfection of their movement techniques.
The details: Medea: The River Runs Backwards plays the Old Museum until September 7. Tickets on the company website.