Euripides, who lived in the fourth century
B.C., is considered the most modern of the Greek tragic playwrights.
He is admired for his biting social criticism, profound psychological
insights and the humanity of his characters. Even though she
is a barbarian and a witch who kills a whole slew of people including
her own sons, his "Medea" is an extremely human, sometimes
In the Abbey Theatre’s production, on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater until Oct. 12 as part of their Next Wave Festival, "Medea" seems just like your next-door neighbor, an interpretation that comes mostly from director Deborah Warner and her starring actress Fiona Shaw.
Warner and Shaw have previously collaborated on seven projects, including "Electra" in 1988, a cross-gender version of Shakespeare’s "Richard II" (with Shaw as the king) in 1995, and a one-woman performance of T.S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland" in 1996.
The two women have also achieved considerable success apart: Shaw played Harry Potter’s awful Aunt Petunia in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," and Warner has directed several operas in England, such as "Wozzeck," "Don Giovanni" and "Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher," as well as several performance installations.
But it is Warner and Shaw’s work together that seems particularly fruitful.
Using Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s translation, and Tom Pye’s minimalist set, which transforms ancient Corinth into a white-brick backyard with glass doors and walls behind a shallow pool, Warner has turned Euripides’ classic tale of passion, pride and revenge into a modern story of passion, pride and revenge.
Even before Medea appears in all her anguish, the family nanny (Siobhan McCarthy) stumbles through the glass doors wailing over Jason’s infidelity to his wife, and Medea’s deteriorating state of mind. She rushes about trying to find a place to hide the family’s knives. (Talk about foreshadowing.)
The children’s tutor (Robin Laing) runs down the theater’s steps and onto the stage and delivers the news that Medea’s problems have just begun: Kreon, king of Corinth, has ordered Medea and her sons banished.
Soon the chorus - modern stereotypes including an office worker, a housewife and a New Age devotee - enter, counseling calm and reason.
Throughout, Medea’s cries and wails can be heard from some undisclosed place under the stage. But when Medea enters, she is no raving lunatic with wild hair and bloodshot eyes. Shaw is sedate and quiet. She wears a simple dress and sweater. At first she appears a bit awkward, almost apologetic.
"Ladies," she says to the chorus, "don’t think ill of me."
It’s almost impossible to describe the extent of Shaw’s triumph in the role. Her body language, gestures and tone range from determined to deranged, sarcastic to suicidal, mild to murderous. She snarls, spits, stumbles, smiles, caresses and kills.
Jason (Jonathan Cake), when he finally appears to defend his actions, comes running into the yard wearing a jogging suit and sneakers. He claims he wants to marry Kreon’s daughter only because it will ensure his status in Corinth and provide sons to protect the sons he has with Medea.
Medea doesn’t believe Jason, and neither does the audience.
Cake casts a powerfully ambivalent figure as the duplicitous Jason - an arrogant Greek who feels superior to the woman he has taken from the boondocks and introduced to civilization. But he is also a man who grieves deeply.
He accomplishes the difficult task of making the vain, ambitious, adulterous Greek sympathetic.
But the real strength in this production is not the bursts of passion, the splashes of blood and the bloodcurdling screams - although there’s plenty of that too - but in the very ordinariness of characters to whom we can all relate.
Who knows what turns a loving mother into a murderess? Warner’s interpretation minimizes the role of the gods. There is no divine intervention in the end, and the gods play a marginal role in the characters’ motivation.
Warner and Shaw seem to be telling a modern audience that has witnessed countless murders and calls for revenge a troubling truth: None of us is very far from the passions that provoked Medea. She wears our clothes and our face. She lives next door to us.
"Medea" plays through Oct. 12 at 7:30 pm, with an additional, 2 pm matinee on Oct. 12, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St.). Tickets are $25, $45 and $65. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org on the Web.