Medea (Gate Theatre)

Australian theatre company Belvoir turn Euripides’ classic tale on its head – presenting the tragedy from the children’s perspective

The Ancient Greeks kept violence offstage. So, in a way, does this spin on Euripedes from Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre – the company behind that crisp Wild Duck at the Barbican last year. Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks take us into a boys’ bedroom where Medea and Jason’s two children are playing. The door has been locked and, downstairs, offstage, their parents are fighting. "If they don’t love each other," the eldest sighs, "they have to work out where it all went wrong, and that could take at least an hour."

The two boys – pre-teens, 10 and 12 maybe – don’t know what’s coming and they never find out. As far as they’re concerned, they’re off to live with daddy and his new "friend" (don’t forget the bunny ears) at her house with its pool and its balcony and its trampoline. Mummy’s been acting a bit weird – every so often Emma Beattie‘s Medea pops in, husky and drawn – but so what? BALCONY. TRAMPOLINE. POOL.

We know, of course. We knew from the start. Within an hour, both boys will be dead by their mother’s hand.

Mulvany and Sarks prod at that. What do those deaths mean? Why are they tragic and why would we watch? The two boys play at death: they have long Nerf gun shootouts, pausing to reload; act out bear attacks and seizures, draw wooden swords and duel. They overfeed their fish to see if it explodes. Death, to them, is more or less meaningless. When an hour lasts a lifetime and your parents’ 74-second kiss seems like "forever," death must seem an eternity away – not inevitable, but inconceivable. Tragedies – real and enacted – change that.

As adults, we never see kids alone, but it stirs a memory and challenges our treatment of children: what we keep from them, what we teach them, what we encourage them to become. It reframes Medea too – though not to the extent of Rachel Cusk‘s Almeida rewrite. Here, she’s a mother about to lose her kids and, with it, her identity as a wife and mother. Motherhood, Mulvany implies, is shot through with loss; one’s children grow up and move on. Medea’s merely speeding things up.

Sarks’ production is beautifully low-key – perfectly naturalistic – and there’s not a flicker of affectation or acting about Keir Edkins-O’Brien and Bobby Smalldridge‘s performances. Nonetheless, every single action has its own precise quality. They chuck toys, lazily, into their toybox – as all of us once did – and make sport out of making their bed. They wrestle for real, unphased by potential bruises. Sarks completely gets childhood: its games and its longeurs, its invulnerability as much as its vulnerability. Leon, the eldest, keeps his dad’s jumper in a drawer. Jasper still wets the bed – the shame of that.

Dramatically, however, this can only go so far. It’s not that we know where we’re heading – that’s true of Euripedes – but where the original shows us the path to filicide, Mulvany and Sarks simply rock up at the ending. True, they’re not aiming for tragedy proper, but the story’s scope is curtailed, as is a Medea framed only as a.n.other mother, not as a mythic demi-god. Equally, for all the deftness of its handling and the ideas it unearths, it’s hard to shake off the conceit of the child’s eye view.

Medea runs at the Gate until 28 November.