With the exception of classics students, most of today’s readers have great trouble finding ancient Greek tragedies readable or relatable. Written over 2,000 years ago with the intention of being performed over a full day, the plays now often seem too long and archaic to modern audiences. For those wishing to overcome these barriers, Scapegoat Carnivale’s 20th century adaptation of Euripides’s Medea presents a good solution.
Often described as proto-feminist, Medea tells the story of the titular character’s tragic attempt to avenge herself after her husband leaves her for Glauce (offstage in the play), the young daughter of Creon (Alex Ivanovic), King of Corinth. Medea (Frances Rolland) and her children are forced by Creon to leave his kingdom without any place to go. Begging him to remain in Corinth, he grants her one more day in the kingdom – a decision which proves for many to be fatal.
Furious with her husband’s decision to leave her, Medea devises a plan to poison Glauce and Creon, and then to kill her own children. After much time spent in Hamlet-like indecision, Medea finally does both of these things: the climax occurring as an infuriated Jason returns to his ex-wife to find his children, new wife, and father-in-law dead. The bottom black wall smashes down as Medea appears illuminated above, her two dead sons next to her as red blood-like paint drips down into the set’s painted Greek sea. Jason squirms pathetically below her as Medea proclaims, “In return I have your heart forever.” The audience is enraptured.
As the inside of the playbill describes, Euripides “is known primarily for having reshaped the formal structure of Athenian tragedy by portraying strong female characters and intelligent slaves and by satirizing many heroes of Greek mythology.” Yet Medea hardly emerges as the heroic feminist figure that this claim might suggest. Instead, her rage positions her as the “mad woman” Jason accuses her of being. The harrowing screams of Medea’s children as she stabs them to death, as well as her delight in hearing the news of Creon and Glauce’s poisoning, makes it difficult at times for audiences members to sympathize with her character. In light of this, the potential feminism of the play is constantly being undermined.
The play’s set design, lighting, and music all underscore Medea’s displacement. A two-storey black wall with simplistic square doors, the set offers no indication of time or place. Instead, we are left to infer the setting from the characters’ costumes. The presence of high trousers, newsboy caps, and headscarves clearly locate the viewer in the 1920s. According to the playbill, the era was chosen specifically to parallel Medea’s exile with displacement felt by many ethnic Turkish residents of 1920s Greece. This historical reference, however, feels rather obscure. The connection is only really made when we hear the sorrowful rembetiko music, a folk genre that emerged from a fusion of the two cultures.
In the end, the triumph of this production comes from the exceptional performances of both the chorus of singers and Rolland. The harmonic chorus of head-scarved mothers sing beautifully of Medea’s hardship and the hardship of mother’s in general. When language ceases and fails in the play, these singers fill the gap. Rolland’s acting, however, is certainly the play’s most unforgettable feature. Her strong movements and booming voice perfectly translate the Medea’s fierceness. Her physical likeness to how one might imagine Medea adds to this convincing portrayal. In one scene, Rolland takes off her 20s attire to reveal a classical Greek robe and gold necklace. The contrast of her muscular arms with this prestigious attire emphasize Medea’s impressive strength.
The culmination of these elements make for an electric performance. While some may question the effectiveness of the play’s feminist message as well as its historical setting, Scapegoat Theatre’s ability to shock and engage viewers with this performance attests to the overall success of the production.
Medea is playing at the Centaur Theatre, 453 St. François-Xavier, until October 30, at 8:30 p.m. Student tickets are $16, see centaurtheatre.com for more details.