Review: Greek tragedy possess devastating power on stage in Warwick

Playbox Theatre presents Medea. Picture: Lucy Barriball
Playbox Theatre presents Medea. Picture: Lucy Barriball

Nick Le Mesurier reveiws Medea, presented by Playbox Theatre at the Dream Factory, Warwick

Euripides’s Medea is one of the most notorious characters in theatrical history. A woman so consumed by jealousy after her husband rejects her for a younger, nicer model that she murders her own children in an act of monstrous revenge. Many people might identify with her feelings of rejection, but to go that far defies all limits of reason.

Playbox Theatre presents Medea. Picture: Lucy Barriball

Playbox Theatre presents Medea. Picture: Lucy Barriball

Or does it? For while Medea might be mad, she is also logical and astute. That is her terrifying power. There is much method in her madness, and the fact that it does – must - lead to her terrible revenge is what makes her so compelling.

When this version of the play, by Mike Bartlett, was premiered in 2012 it was criticised for its setting in a hyper-realistic middle-class suburb where Medea and Jason have set up home. But at Playbox much better use is made of the big empty stage, which gives this soap opera par excellence real dramatic power.

The text doesn’t repeat any of Euripides’s dialogue but follows the story pretty closely, though without the traditional Chorus or the character of the Nurse, both staples of classical Greek drama. This Medea is no mythical princess, and certainly not the granddaughter of the sun god, as she is in the original. But like her counterpart she is a foreigner, out of place in this world of gossip and high-street glamour. She has no purpose in life, even though she’s had a job and workplace friends much like everyone else. All she has, really, is Jason, and she fixates ruthlessly upon him. She is narcissism writ large. “I’m not just bitter,” she says of herself, “I’m twisted,”.

The trouble is, we’re never quite sure when she is joking. For even in her darkest moments Medea uses humour to hold a mirror up to stereotypes of gender identity. I won’t repeat her description of men in general as it is laced with profanities, but it was sharp and it reminded me of the old joke: just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me. Her sacrifice of herself and her children makes her a heroine for an extreme version of radical feminism.

Medea is played by Teagan Gough, a young actor with a very bright future. Her Medea is dumpy, scruffy, rather dowdy in her appearance: a suburban victim of the terrors of hell. Gough’s emotional control is impressive. Jason (Hayden Coward) is portrayed as a decent enough bloke, one who has tried to support Medea and to tolerate her moods, as have her friends Pam (Eilidh Evans) and Sarah (Paige Cooper), but has found her self-pity and caustic humour over many years too much to bear. Only Medea would be surprised he has fallen for the nicer, more compliant Kate (Beatriz Sanchez).

For me the sadness of the play was portrayed in Daniel Travis’s performance as Tom, their doomed son. In both the original and this version Medea is a domestic tragedy, and as so often in real life it is the children who suffer. Tom never says a word, but his silent withdrawal from the bitter converse of adult emotions made one want to weep.

Playbox Theatre has a reputation for delivering spectacular ensemble productions featuring dozens of characters. But here they remind us that small scales are no hindrance when it comes to performances of big theatrical power. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Playbox is one of the most radical and brilliant theatre companies around.

* Visit playboxtheatre.com for details of future productions.