‘The myth of Medea… a tragedy, absolutely timeless and ancient, about a woman driven by female desperation to killing her children; (she) is not superhuman, not an immortal but is all too human’.
Liz Lochhead’s bold, brave and black humorous adaptation of Medea (after Euripides) was first staged to great acclaim in 2000 and the National Theatre of Scotland has now revived this modern classic for the Edinburgh International Festival.
Like spectators in the Pit of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the audience stand on each side of the long-thrust stage like a catwalk down the centre of The Hub’s ornate Main Hall. The prologue by the Nurse paraphrases the central storyline with gallus Glaswegian wit: ‘She’s chucked out like an auld coat that nae langer fits him.’
Medea is facing the truth of her husband’s infidelity with burning humiliation and hate. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, indeed. The Chorus of ten women of all ages and nationalities, is suddenly visible within the crowd, chanting in unison to offer Medea their empathy – one of her feisty posse echoes her support in sign language.
‘We are all survivors of the sex war… widows, divorced, mistresses, wives, we are women, we know men. Punish him for us, Medea.’
As Medea, Adura Onashile slinks down the catwalk, the epitome of a beautiful supermodel in her strappy black dress and gold earrings exuding a majestic Queenly presence. Behind her passive expression, she is seething with jealousy and anger. Medea is viewed as an outsider in a patriarchal society, brutally betrayed by Jason who will soon marry Princess Glauke, daughter of King Kreon. But this is far from a romantic fairy tale.
Like a corporate CEO in a blue business suit (think Brian Cox in Succession), Kreon is a large and pugnacious man, towering over her – she and her children are banished from the country. But the contemptuous Jason has other plans, ‘the children should stay with us.’ Glauke, his pretty blonde fecund bride with child, plays the ageist card, but Medea means business. Beware Greeks bearing gifts. Jason must lose everything he loves – his young wife will be spending the honeymoon in Hades.
A painfully poignant scene follows, when she gives a goodnight hug to her three sweet children and nearly loses her nerve, while the Chorus pleads with her to stop her ‘raging heart’. Too late, she has been driven to retaliatory, murderous violence, giving Lady Macbeth a run for her money.
‘What am I’, Medea asks Jason in a final brief encounter, ‘tigress, harpy, witch, she-wolf, monster? Yes, I am.’
In similar vein, the explosive climax of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), ends with Nora – an unnatural monster of a mother – slamming the door, leaving her marriage, husband, and children. But contemporary critics hailed this as the first feminist play since the ancient Greek dramas depicted powerful female protaganists.
Medea stands proudly expressing vehement dignity, women wronged in bed will seek revenge and ‘have your guts for garters.’
The dagger-sharp, sardonic, colloquial, lyrical language is colourfully spoken in contrasting Scottish and English accents with poetic rhythm and pace. A murmur of cymbals and ringing drums creates atmospheric soundscape and chilling mood.
This is a modern masterpiece, reinterpreting the timeless Greek tragedy into a 21st century feminist morality play. Whether monster or victim, the jury is still out, as Adura Onashile oozes visceral power and sexual authority in a passionate performance of pure, raw emotion.
Standing places and limited seats in main hall and gallery.
With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review, and to Stewart Reid for additional research.
See Artmag Issue 223.