For the second time in less than a decade, a Greek tragedy written 2,500 years ago has found its way into Shaftesbury Avenue. For today's playwrights, struggling to be heard, this may not be music to their ears, but for the rest of us, the prospect of Fiona Shaw's Medea is a juicy one.
It is, after all, one of showiest women's roles in existence, a human volcano of jealousy, rage and vengeance, and Shaw is renowned for tackling the classics at full throttle. Six years ago, Diana Rigg did it her way, winning plaudits and awards on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times said she brought "a blazing intelligence and an elegant ferocity to the part."
Shaw's portrayal of the woman who is so consumed by hatred of her adulterous husband that she kills their two children promises to be different. It comes to the West End from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and is directed by Shaw's longtime friend and collaborator, Deborah Warner, who worked with her on Hedda Gabler, Electra and Richard II. Given the two women’s taste for tough-minded, visceral drama, there’s a sort of inevitability about this Medea.
The pair say they only do plays they don't know how to do, implying that both enjoy pushing elephants up mountains. Shaw has also commented that working with Warner means "serious, serious exhaustion....you are in a state of rehearsal all the time, there's no let up." Warner, for her part, says Shaw is much cleverer than she is "which makes her a great person to have in the rehearsal room."
From a commercial viewpoint, the timing of their Medea could hardly be better since Greek drama seems strangely fashionable all of a sudden. An explicit Hollywood film version of The Bacchae is on its way here, a new film about Julius Caesar is planned, and Peter Hall's acclaimed ten-hour epic Tantalus, about the Trojan war, has arrived now in the UK (opening at the Barbican in May 2001). That, too, is likely to be filmed. John Barton, who based Tantalus on fragments of ancient texts, claims that the ancient myth addresses "all the big questions" while having the narrative drive of a soap opera.
Is the durability of Greek drama really so surprising? The recurring themes of betrayal, infidelity, power and vengeance haven't diminished in popularity in two millennia. You'll find them alive and well in Eugene O'Neill, Sarah Kane and Eastenders. Peter Hall for one believes, "the Greeks began the task of representing in dramatic form the mysteries of life - birth and desire, love and death, revenge and forgiveness. Every age must re-examine them because of our desperate need to understand."
What makes Medea particularly timeless is its one-to-one intimacy, the fact that the great populist Euripides was writing about the despair, humiliation and vindictiveness of a woman abandoned by her man for a younger model. Some things never change. In Kenneth McLeish's colloquial translation, the language of marital strife resonates in the 21st century all too clearly.
"Someone with no knowledge of Greek drama would be forgiven for thinking it's a new play," says Warner. "We've approached Medea as a real woman, not a supernatural immortal possessed of magical powers. The ferocity of her rows with Jason reminded me of something out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - very modern-day, very sexy, often very funny."
Did she say funny? Yep.
"After Fiona and I did Electra, in which there is no humour, I'd resigned myself to the fact that Greek plays functioned without laughs. So I was shocked to find a lot of comedy in Medea. Euripides was a master of unsettling his audience by following a laugh with something terrible and tragic. Shakespeare does it all the time."
Though she points out that her collaborations with Shaw make up a relatively small element of her portfolio, it is clear Warner finds the fiery Irish actress an inspiration like no other. "She pushes me and makes me go to places I wouldn't otherwise go. She inspires trust and there has to be trust there for you to freefall without a parachute. She also has an enormous intellectual appetite balanced by being a visceral performer, which is an unusual combination."
Having directed her first film this year - The Last September (soon to be released on video) again with Fiona Shaw - Warner has brought what she calls "certain cinematic devices" to bear on Euripides in terms of light and sound. "I loved making The Last September and I think working in film and directing opera has brought about changes in the way I approach plays. Medea is very different in style and emphasis from the Electra we staged ten years ago. (Film director) Neil Jordan saw it in Dublin and said it was the first time he'd ever felt frightened in a theatre."
Medea is at the Queen's Theatre from 30 January to 14 April 2001.