‘Sophie Harris’s Medea has as much self-loathing as hatred for Jason – her love for him does not make her weak, it hurts her and she wants the pain to stop.’
Rosy-shouldered dawn shrugs disconsolately at the thick fog which has covered the Grange for days. The smell of wild garlic perfumes the air as I trudge earlymorningedly through the lanes. While Monty-The-Dog, a single headed cerberus, sniffs daintily at lampposts through his muzzle, Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece tumbles from my iPod.
Graves’ Argonauts are a fractious lot, just about held together by the strings of Orpheus’ lyre. His Jason, a somewhat querulous figure, is little more than the unwitting product of circumstances and Chiron’s peerless tutelage. It’s easy to see how Graves’ Jason might have ended up on stage at the Vault in Victoria Fairlie’s adaptation of the Euripidean afterword.
Where I was dragged up you didn’t win the school classics prize if you described the story of Jason’s divorce from the headstrong princess Medea as an ‘afterword’ to the swashbuckling Argonautica. Edinburgh49’s editor (a former teacher himself) assures me this holds true most everywhere.
Up until last night I never fully appreciated the reasoning (other than antiquity) for the play’s enduring appeal. Euripides’ take on the jilted wife, who spites her lost love by destroying his new wife and father-in-law, before slaughtering her own two children by him for the sake of revenge, had always rather baffled me. What is there in a statement on the nexus of neurosis inherent in a barbarian woman who has betrayed her own kind to be with a foreign prince who in turn betrays her?
Through Fairlie’s well-scaled adaption I have (belatedly) come to appreciate that The Medea holds universal insights into the sorrow of falling out of love. Sophie Harris in the title role was sensational. Her strong, perfectly-paced voice opened proceedings, and her subtle variations kept the darkness bright. Harris’s Medea has as much self-loathing as hatred for Jason – her love for him does not make her weak, it hurts her and she wants the pain to stop.
The cast excel at squeezing the juice out of Fairlie’s lines until the pips squeak. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Medea.” My keyboard lacks punctuation marks expressive enough to encapsulate what James Beagon, as Marnes, did with that line. Another instance is the interplay between Medea and her importunate friend Althaia (Leyla Rana Doany). When the latter states, “A man is not your life” Medea retorts, “Maybe not every man, but this one was.”
The Classics Society should know its material like their degrees depended on it. That they do shows up in some A* character summations. Medea is “a shuddering mess of a woman,” whereas Jason’s new wife, Glauce, is “a pretty woman with an empty life.”
Fairlie calzones the script, flipping one half over the other to preserve the heat and amplify the flavour. Rather than relying on the traditional Chorus, the narration is provided by simultaneous retrospection from a Medea haunted by the incarnations of her good and bad angels. Maddie Haynes and Alice Vail shoulder something of the weight of expectations carried so artfully by Harris. They tease out her nuance, throwing up ideal dramatic uplighting.
Gone with the Chorus is Creon’s kingship. Cormac Rae presents Jason’s new father-in-law as a shady figure, wielding influence, rather than power, as might a supreme mafioso. Rae’s clipped tones saturate simple lines such as, “I’d like you to stop,” with quietly assertive menace. His crucial scene with Medea is played with a beguiling understatement. It’s very different from the bombast so often deployed at this familiar moment in the drama. Rae’s Creon is a concerned but devoted father. Perhaps he even harbours an apologetic sympathy for Medea denied disclosure by family loyalty.
Harris’ reactions are as essential as her acting. She is fortunate in her soundingboards, who bring depth and creativity to their roles. I’d like to see the colossally tall Josh Reid fending off bi-planes as he clings to the outside of the David Hume Tower, clutching the diminutive Harris in his hand. The difference in their size may be comic, but the exchanges between them crackle with sombre tension when Reid as Aegeus convinces Medea to connive.
I was not much taken with Olivier Huband’s previous outing as Jason, during the Dionysia. In his reprise of the role he has reached further and achieved more. The somewhat slimy efforts to overpower Medea with sexual magnetism are gone, replaced by a more thoughtful and thought-provoking interplay with Harris. Huband has tremendous poise, shaping himself to the moment as though he has stepped from an Attic vase. He also posses a powerful delivery. In the reprise he has proven he can use it to be more E-Type Jag than Centaur Tank.
This production and adaptation were not without faults. The tinkering with the death of Glauce and Creon’s needless survival were unimpressive. The backdrop of electoral politics hindered rather than helped the contemporary feel. Neither did the script allow Medea to do much more than scorch her bridges with Creon, when for the plot’s sake they needed to be burned entirely. The swearing was unnecessary. If an audience can cope with infanticide they’re not going to be upset by the f-word.
A good production avoids its weaknesses as much as it displays its strength. This was not the cast to present grief stricken fathers coming upon the fresh corpses of innocent children. The ending was downright muddled. If Beagon wants to be credited as a script editor, he needs to demonstrate at least as much ruthlessness as when he reduced Sword at Sunset to a mere three and half hours.
Reflecting on how much Fairlie’s adaptation has furthered my understanding of this oh so dark tale, I cannot help but be mightily impressed – it’s what you want from a Classics Society production. The venue may suit lines about cold, dark and dank environs but, as Harris so flawlessly demonstrates, the Vault is a great incubator of vibrant, compelling talent.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 2 April)
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