Well, here we are again in another lockdown, so it seems a good opportunity to revisit a Medea re-imagined adaptation performed by By Jove Theatre, a feminist socialist theatre company. Originally written for the stage and performed in 2017 as part of a Season of Violent Women, it is an unusual and imaginative adaptation concentrating solely on Medea. Performed as a psychological monologue, Medea’s psyche is shared between three actors, sometimes singly and sometimes together. Alas I did not attend but this review gives more detail.
The adaption was then re-imagined for a digital audience paralleling the housebound viewer, trapped in a domestic situation by the lockdown with Medea, trapped in an unescapable situation. The original script whilst being hard hitting and using contemporary language makes the reception more accessible to a wider, non-classical audience as the myth back story is incorporated into direct references to Euripides’ Medea. Digital technology creates another visual layer of accessibility to Medea’s inner conflict and downward mental spiral. One, two or three Medeas appear in separate screens which move, fade and revolve offering an insight into the chaotic mind, conflicts and mood swings – at the same time other characters appear as a pulsating ring, ensuring that Medea is the focus and yet at the same time emphasising Medea’s isolation.
Whilst the performance may be startling to those brought up on a diet of faithful interpretations to the original, it draws the viewer in quickly and completely. For me it is the resonance, relevance and familiarity which initially engages and is absorbing.
Remembering that this is a re-imagination for a lockdown audience, there are many parallels which give a tantalising glimpse into Medea’s unhappy marriage. The script expands on Medea’s inner turmoil and tortured decision making as she finds herself isolated and trapped. Many of the elements contributing to Medea’s mental state: a relationship breakdown, children, expected behaviours, claustrophobia even picky eating are many of the problems aired on television and radio phone-ins, newspaper and magazine problem pages and news media which are directly resulting from the feeling of isolation and powerlessness during lockdown. Not only does this resonate with the modern audience but points to the background pressures the Medea would have experienced.
Listening to Medea’s monologue, with the Euripidean play in the background, is a reminder of how familiar the story is to the modern-day audience. An emerging celebrity marries a young woman but, later, divorces after meeting someone who can advance his career or image. Like the Athenian we are distanced as the details are often played out through tabloids and social media. It is indeed a story that is all too familiar.
Listening to Medea(s), it is not difficult to have some sympathy and empathy. She has given up everything: betrayed her home country, alienated her family, killed her brother only to be cast aside. She is isolated, trapped and yet expected to conform to a certain standard. Just as the story is familiar to a modern audience, so is her emotional reaction. Many will know directly or through friends couples who have acrimoniously separated, have feelings of betrayal and listened while a range of emotional responses have been articulated – not always rationally. It is therefore easy to understand the journey Medea undertakes, although thankfully very few resort to the Euripidean solution.
It is this familiarity, resonance and sympathy which points to a more nuanced view of Athenian life. Relationship breakdown would have been very familiar to the Athenian audience in 431 BCE. Only twenty years previously Pericles had enacted the Citizenship Laws that a person should not have the rights of citizenship unless both of his parents had been citizens. Whilst it is not known exactly how many this affected, a further tightening of the law in 445/444 BCE saw around five thousand people convicted and sold into slavery bringing the citizenship levels to around fourteen thousand. So, it is reasonable to conclude that, as more that 28% of the population were affected, relationship breakdown from the application of the law was widely known and would therefore resonate and be familiar to the Athenian audience.
Just as Medea engendered sympathy from the modern audience, there are signs that the Athenian audience was equally sympathetic. Empathy, understanding and resolution for the unintended consequences of the Citizenship Laws can be evidenced. Ironically Pericles bore an illegitimate son by his mistress Aspasia. He was subsequently enrolled onto the Phratry list and was given his own name. In Euripides’ play Medea, there is a meeting between Medea and Aegeus, the king of Athens (lines 660-760). Having listened to her plight, he is appalled by her treatment and offers Medea sanctuary in Athens, on which he swears an oath. Although is open to different interpretation: Euripides setting the scene to underscore Medea’s duplicitous nature demonstrated later, the lack of punishment for her deeds or to showcase an Athenian higher moral position, the point is the offer was being made to Medea, a woman (also a worrying foreigner, possibly a witch who has betrayed her country and family). To keep the audience engaged there must be resonance, a plausibility and believability. Therefore, for Aegeus to be able to make the offer there must have been a recognition by the audience that the situation Medea found herself in was inherently unjust. It is also worth remembering that the audience would have been familiar with the myth. Although they might expect the children to be killed, this would either be at the hands of the Corinthians or as a tragic sacrificial accident while trying to gain immortality. As yet, Medea had not killed the children, a manipulation and twist introduced by Euripides. From that perspective there is no bar to Medea attracting the audience’s sympathy.
For me, the By Jove performance of Medea was a revelation. Medea adapted and presented for a modern audience with a re-imagining for the pandemic we find ourselves in and yet raised questions about Athens 431 BCE. Is this the door opening a crack and allowing me to peer back? I would like to think so. To me, it appears that rather than the traditional view of a binary society, the unintended consequences of a law has exposed, through stresses and tensions, a far more nuanced view of society and social interactions of family life, husbands and wives, men and women and Athenians and foreigners.
Whether you agree or disagree with me, I would welcome your thoughts, in the meantime, enjoy the performance.