Directors often adapt plays written in the past so as to comment on the present. Medea offers just such an opportunity. Set in ancient Greece it tells of a woman who betrays her country for the love of Jason to whom she has two children.
Isolated in a strange land she faces further loneliness when her husband decides to take a new wife for financial and political advantage. Driven to distraction by the inequity of the situation and denied any mercy from the authorities Medea is compelled to take a terrifying revenge with the only weapons available to her.
This version of the play is set in a timeless/modern culture apparently somewhere in Yorkshire. As a result director Barry Ritter loses the chance to analyse contemporary patriarchal cultures in which women are routinely abused or have their rights ignored.
It requires too great a stretch of the imagination to suppose that the situation of Medea in Yorkshire is anywhere near as dire as in the original. There is any number of options available to a wronged woman in our society so that the final act of vengeance is ridiculously over the top rather than a desperate act of someone with nothing left to lose.
Sadly, this is only one of a number of misjudgements by the director. The cast are instructed to perform in the grand style of acting with big gestures and to highlight any possible humour with significant pauses to be sure there is no chance of the audience missing out. A number of recent productions have benefited from the cast performing music live on stage. In this show that is not the case.
Rutter hasalso decided that the blues is the appropriate style of music for this tragedy. In theory it should work – the blues having origins in oppression – but in practice we get the silly sight of the chorus suddenly breaking out a tune on harmonicas or Medea climaxing a speech with a drum roll.
Julie Washington’s burnt orange lighting helps create the oppressively hot atmosphere in which violence is common. The skeleton-like remains of a building in Emma Wee’s set add to the sense of apprehension. In a nice touch it adapts into Medea’s chariot although the effect is spoilt by a visible stagehand and safety harness.
Tom Paulin’s version of the play makes Medea more human and comprehensible to a modern audience by emphasising how her immigrant status makes her vulnerable to exploitation and loneliness. He adds a touch of Richard III to the character who is ‘not as other woman are’ and ‘ belongs to some other kind’. His efforts to widen the appeal of Medea are frustrated by Nina Kristofferson’s rather crude interpretation of the role. A twisted grin and popping eyes suggest that Medea requires little provocation to drive her to murder but rather that she is ready to kill from the opening.
It's a real shame that poor direction and interpretation spoil this interesting attempt to make a tragic figure relevant to contemporary audiences.