‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, so goes the saying. In few places is this as well captured as Euripides’ Medea, an enduring story of a rejected wife’s revenge. Like much ancient Greek theatre, the play holds up well in the 21st century, as the characters’ original motives are muddied by time and shifting societal values.
The common tread for productions of Medea is to present the titular character (played in this version by Naomi Rukavina) as something of a feminist hero. Exiled for placing her love of Jason over that of her country and family, Medea is an outspoken foreigner, strong and emotional. Here is an intelligent woman able to exact revenge on her enemies and who seeks to free herself from an oppressive patriarchal system. Some more radical interpretations even push Medea as freeing herself from a woman’s ultimate burden – motherhood.
The Complete Theatre Works Company production of Medea is not a radical interpretation. It is as stock standard as possible, taking the text and pasting it onstage with straightforward set design and equally obvious delivery. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it depends entirely on the audience. CTWC is a prolific company known for their work in bringing the classics on the English curriculum to life for Year Eleven and Twelve students. In such circumstances, the straightforward approach can work wonders.
Simple, vaguely era appropriate stage design and costume provides a context and framework that helps students engage with what can otherwise seem to be irrelevant texts. Here, the set is a façade of a Greek looking house, with steps and cardboard cut out chorus members positioned at either side of the stage. Medea is dressed in dark purple, which contrasts nicely to her husband’s blue robes and the off white of the slaves’ tunics. It is a colour-coded short cut that immediately clues the audience in to the power dynamics between the characters. In turn, these dynamics are reasonably well wielded by the actors. The emotionality is strong to the point of being overdone, but there is clarity to it that would be lacking from an in-class script reading. Each beat and action is laid out for examination, to prompt understanding and interpretation of the text rather than the production.
Unfortunately, this makes for some very boring theatre for any audience that isn’t a class of VCE English students. CTWC rarely perform to public audiences, and it’s easy to see why. The text still shines through, but it’s muddied by the melodramatic performances. There are some directorial choices that make sense in terms of presenting a semi-authentic experience of Greek theatre – large and frequent gestures, for example – that just don’t add anything to the performance. The actors seem hampered and hemmed in by a need to be direct, which results in stumbled lines and bizarre cadence shifts. The chorus (Brigid Gallacher and Jennifer Vuletic) are annoying and engaging in equal measure; their echoed speech seems to be directed randomly towards segments of the play which have the potential to be emotional but don’t necessarily need to be.
There are enjoyable moments in Medea, and those are mostly the comedic beats. Usually coming from Christopher Brown, it seems strange that the strongest moments of a powerful tragedy are its laughs. Yet there is something delightful about such a traditional straightforward production gently leaning into the release of tension that laughter provides, even if it doesn’t necessarily earn the tension build up in the first place.
CTWC’s Medea is simple, direct version of the play that will no doubt please purists and students alike. If you are already familiar with the text and are after something more, you may not enjoy this production as much.
Medea is on at Union House, in the University of Melbourne, until Friday the 31st of July. There are performances at 1pm and 7pm, and each one runs for 90 minutes without interval. Tickets cost $25 and are available from the Complete Works Theatre Company website.