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Barrie Rutter & Nina Kristofferson On ... Medea

Barrie Rutter is the founder and artistic director of touring theatre company Northern Broadsides, and directs their new production of Medea.

He was awarded the country’s most prestigious arts prize when named Creative Briton of the year in 2000.

He holds Honorary Doctorates at the Universities of Hull, Bradford, and Huddersfield.

His theatre credits include: Henry IV, Henry V, Coriolanus and The Taming of the Shrew (for the Royal Shakespeare Company); The Mysteries, The Crucible, Guys and Dolls, The Oresteia, The Rivals, Animal Farm, Martine and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (for the Royal National Theatre).

Nina Kristofferson assumes the title role of Medea in Northern Broadside’s new production.

She has worked widely in opera, television, film and theatre.

Past theatre credits include: Sweet Inspiration (European tour), Romeo and Juliet (The Nurse Theatre), I Cover the Waterfront – The Spirit of Billie Holiday (Nottingham Arts Theatre).

I join the cast of Northern Broadsides, currently touring their production of Medea across the UK, in rehearsals a couple of weeks ago. Barrie Rutter, director and founder of the company, is calling out insightful comments to the cast – a particular highlight of these, “Don’t do soap opera!”

To one side of the rehearsal space, lies a mosaic of printed papers: there are colourful costume sketches; evocative diagrams of the set, by pictures of Viking longboat skeletons, oars jutting from either side; paintings by artists like Klimt; a photograph of Joan Crawford posing in costume by George Hurrell; all of which will surely have their role in influencing the production.

The elegant sketches reveal floor-length dresses and men’s jackets in Edwardian-style that have been chosen, not necessarily for a full representation of the period, but because “the timeless Edwardian look just suits what we’re doing”.

In a break in rehearsal, Barrie points out to me key details of the set: Medea will emerge up through steps and chain herself to the skeletal, antler-like chariot design of the stage, which he says is deliberately “reminiscent of the Argonaut”, that will stand for her house in the production. The stage floor will be lined with hides, these themselves pulled apart to reveal a bloody red-stained floor, as the dramatic crux of the tragedyunfurls.

After rehearsal breaks for lunch, I join Nina Kristofferson, who plays the title role, and Barrie Rutter in a quiet space to delve into their thoughts on Medea.

Nina is collected, crisply spoken and warm, with a naturally regal bearing that will no doubt carry her through the role of Medea well. Barrie is a tall and forthright, rather fiercesome man with magnificent eyebrows and a piercing glare. I begin with my first, rather simple question. Why Medea?

Tom Paulin, (the writer of this new adaptation) sent it to me a year ago, and I decided that Icould do something with it, I liked it. I was originally going to do something with it in Autumn ’10, but with the success of Othello moving into the West End, we had to curtail what was going to be our Autumn Tour.” But Barrie is happy about bringing it forward in the year:

“I’ve got a long history of Greek tragedy and comedy. I just love the style of the plays. I love presentational acting, that sort of existentialism that goes on in Greek plays. I don’t let it become a psychological wank.”

As Barrie goes on to explain, Tom Paulin’s version also appealed to the Northern Broadsides, because “it’s a new one. We’ve never used an existing one. Blake Morrison’s done Antigone, we’ve had a new Oedipus… we’ve always commissioned new versions of it, which they deserve.” I ask him, does he think that’s important for theatre?

“Yes, I do. Because of the ones that I’ve read, they’ve been too scholarly, not for performance. This has been written to be performed.”

The nature of classical texts, so familiar to theatrical audiences and dramatists, often results in their drastic overhauling for performance. Does Barrie have a specific vision for this new Medea?

“No. No, it’s just developed. Because I’m not deconstructing the play there’s no need. I mean, Heiner Muller did a version years ago, called Medea Material, where he set it on a post-Holocaust landscape, full of waste, and he took bits from everywhere... But we’re not doing that. I don’t have a particular vision at all, it’ll turn out how it turns out.”

It’s the turn of Nina Kristofferson to claim some of the spotlight, and so I ask her, how is she approaching the incredibly challenging role of Medea? She answers with an infectious laugh:

“With great difficulty! I don’t really have a set way of approaching it. I’ve been given a lot of guidance... The story is very deep, so you have to think not even about the truth of it, but just let the theatricality of it take prominence. That’s really helped me shape the voice and bring out the truth of the character.” In terms of the performance itself, which requires her presence onstage for the entirety of the performance, she explains, “You really have to stay alive for the whole thing, to give it the energy it deserves.”

In response to my next query, how Nina is going to make Medea appealing, or at least understandable, to the audience, Barrie is quick to hop in with a challenge: “Who says she has to be? Ha, I’m going to throw your question right back at you!” Nina agrees, in a somewhat calmer tone, that Medea “doesn’t have to be, she’s being truthful, to herself and the situation.” To explain his interjection, Barrie goes on:

“We have to admire, don’t we, in that existential way, the performer, and the performance. We get sucked into Macbeth, he talks directly to us, so he charms us in that theatrical way, even though we know he’s killing everybody. Richard III is exactly the same. You have to charm an audience in the sheer sense of theatre... Nina most of all, because she’s going to kill her kids! Sympathy will sometimes be there, sometimes will not, people in the audience will disagree with others in the audience...”

What Barrie does see as important, above sympathy, is a clear representation of Medea’s internal switch between emotions. “She says, ‘I mustn’t do it’, and she means it. And then she says, ‘But I must do it.’ There’s the schizophrenia, but the schizophrenia is in poetic form…So I’ve encouraged Nina to be very definite, red on that bit, blue on that bit, red again, and then blue.”

Nina corroborates this approach to the text.“It’s worked extremely well, it does help with the clarity of the role. It’s gear changing. It’s speed.”

This approach is particularly rooted in the conventions of Greek drama, as Barrie elaborates. “Often when we go into turmoil, we’ve no words at all. We are speechless. Greek tragedy is never speechless. You know, the Greek tragic mask had ever open eyes, so it couldn’t turn away from anything, and the ever open mouth, always ready to comment on anything... And because ours isn’t a deconstructed version of it, that still remains.”

How has Nina gone about creating her character then?

“I came with very little to the table, because I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about the rolethat might have sent me in the wrong direction. I came completely naked, and open, to the process, which has informed the way I’ve performed the character. So the investment of the truth is there, and that enables me to do the eight shows, rather than trying to dredge up the truth of trying to kill somebody, which is impossible!”

Barrie picks up from here, continuing, “Nina will confirm that I never use the word ‘character’. I use the word ‘characteristics’. Characteristics, yes, but never character. Because good, or bad, or indifferent, she’s Medea. There’s no astral plane of rehearsals, through which you climb an astral ladder, and don an astral mantle, and say ‘Now I am Medea’... That’s all bollocks.You see film actors talking that way a lot. The psychological… All that indulgence that goes on. The skill of acting is much more about technique.It’s great that Nina particularly, with the most to do and say in the titular role, didn’t come with any preconceived ideas, because it would have taken three weeks to get them out of her.” In response, there is a, low, girlish giggle of amusement from Nina.

She adds, “There was a lot of fighting at the beginning... You see, I have my demands, and so does Barrie. But then Nina concedes, “You have to look to one body, one person, to bring everything to a whole. If Barrie wasn’t strong, it could go in all kinds of directions.”

This firm handle on the outcome of Medea follows right through to the length of the production (87 minutes, apparently):

“It doesn’t need to be any longer than 90 minutes in any Greek tragedy… They’re all between 85 and 100 minutes in modern times... And if they’re any longer, that’s indulgence.”

Adopting Barrie’s Yorkshire tones, Nina cheekily pipes up,“We’re having none o’ that!” before bursting out with laughter.

And what are her final thoughts on Medea? “It’s not going to be your usual theatre, but then, that’s a good thing. You don’t go to the theatre to see the same old same old, that’s not informative and that’s not engaging. You’re going to be informed in a different style and you’re going to be entertained – kept on the edge of your seat!”

- Barrie Rutter and Nina Kristofferson were speaking to Vicky Ellis

Medea is at Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond until 20 February after which it tours at Everyman Theatre, Liverpool; Viaduct Theatre, Halifax; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme and The Lowry, Salford.

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