Barrie Rutter and his Northern Broadsides company have garnered many plaudits for their plain-spoken and accessible productions of classic plays. It was with this in mind that I approached their new version of Euripide’s Medea – in a new translation by Tom Paulin.
The stage is dominated by a skeletal structure evoking the ribcage of some long-dead elephant and a sloping platform. It has clearly been designed to adapt to a number of touring locations and provides a solid foundation on which the drama can unfold.
Paulin and Rutter have clearly reshaped the text to be a direct and down-to-earth as possible. Whilst this may help the clarity of the narrative, there is much lost with such an approach. Greek tragedy rarely, if ever, involves events unfolding before our eyes. The form is rather that of long speeches and set-piece confrontations with events happening off-stage which then get reported. The drama has to come from the language. By using a very modern and casual idiom, we are robbed of the internal dramatic power of language. We understand very clearly what is being said but the emotional impact is not as elevated as it might be.
There are two moments where the F word is employed. Unfortunately, it is a word that has lost its power to shock an audience. Indeed, it raised a number of giggles through the auditorium which rather undermined the dramatic flow of the piece.
It was not just the choice of language which lets this production down, I regret to say. The music that was created also failed to underpin the drama inherent in the narrative. All too often the choices made were incongruous at best and irritating at worst. A score that combined honky-tonk piano and harmonicas with electric guitar and a lot of percussion is always going to be challenging. However the shifting styles from bluegrass to jazz to 1970s rock was just too varied to create a unified whole. I felt myself dreading the next musical moment – never a positive sign.
Medea is very much a vehicle for a strong central female performance: Nina Kristofferson does offer us a very handsome stage presence and a muscular delivery but her tone is too unvaried for us to fully engage with the character. There is good work from the Chorus (Michelle Hardwick, Barbara Hockaday and Heather Phoenix) and the men play their more subsidiary roles to good effect. However it is an inconsistent acting picture that leaves us rather detached from what Euripides was trying to present.
Rutter himself notes that the original production only came third in the contest to find the best play of that season. His new production certainly does not rise to the top and leaves me wondering what he, as director, and Paulin, as translator/adaptor, were trying to say.