Mike Bartlett’s Medea (after Euripides): some thoughts

Another Saturday in London means another Greek tragedy! Yesterday, I saw a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre, London (adaptation by Mike Bartlett), which I found very powerful.

Particularly striking in this production was the performance of the eponymous protagonist Medea (played by Rachel Stirling). After her entrance in the first scene, she is characterised as both vibrant and emotionally volatile, with the relationship between her and the two women Sarah and Pam (who can arguably be seen as pseudo-Choral figures) often veering into tension. This, interestingly, is different to how this relationship is portrayed in Euripides’ original Greek, in which Medea expresses solidarity with the Chorus (“πεφύκαμεν / γυναῖκες”, 407-8). The effect of this tense relationship is to emphasise Medea’s unpredictability as a character. Unlike in the original Greek, she does not confide in the Chorus regarding her vengeful plans; instead, the Medea portrayed in Mike Bartlett’s version is fundamentally isolated. Instead of being caught up by the inevitability of the events in the plot (as according to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy), the audience is enthralled by suspense and fear at what Medea might do next – as are all the other characters, none of whom comes across as especially close to Medea (with the exception of her mute son Tom).

Several scenes add considerably to the dramatic effect of the tragedy, particularly with certain innovations added by Bartlett. In the ἀγών (section of formalised debate between principal characters), an emotional and betrayed Medea initially runs rings around a callous Jason. As Jason introduces more emotion to his speech, however, his arguments begin to carry more weight with the audience. He relates how he felt betrayed psychologically and undermined by Medea during their marriage, thus pointing the finger of blame back at Medea. This particular argument is not found in the original Greek, and therefore perhaps contributes to Jason coming across as more convincing in this production than in the original Greek. That said, Jason quickly loses the audience’s sympathy with a monologue against women in general (which, I should add, does have roots in Euripides’ original).

Rather than simply appealing to Aegeus’ hospitality, Medea in Bartlett’s adaptation explicitly seduces the equivalent character (whether this is implicit in the original is, I think, debatable). This emphasises the volatility of this portrayal of Medea: in this scene, she becomes dangerously charismatic. One other modern touch, rendering Medea’s son frequently present but constantly mute, is (I think) very successful: Tom becomes almost a sinister presence in this production, testament to the horrors which (we imagine) Medea’s marriage must have endured. This culminates in the ominous scene in which an impassive Medea makes dinner for Tom, with both characters in utter silence.

One major area of debate surrounding this tragedy is whether Medea is irrational and insane or not. Here, I feel that there is a crucial difference between Euripides’ original and Bartlett’s production. In the original, Medea is portrayed as rational throughout, despite the horrific and murderous nature of her actions. She plans the murder of her children in advance, and after killing her children, although triumphant, she reasons with Jason, demonstrating why she felt she was right in taking vengeance as she did. By contrast, in Bartlett’s production, Medea seems to kill Tom on impulse, rushing upstairs with a kitchen knife. The final scene does not contain any rational reasoning: instead, the audience sees a wild, frenzied, axe-wielding Medea, standing over Tom’s blood-stained corpse on the roof of the blazing house. This almost stereotypical portrayal of violent insanity, coupled with Medea’s earlier isolation and volatility, creates a perception of Medea which I feel emphasises insanity rather than rationality. I consider this an intriguing departure from Euripides’ original, since it carries implications for whether Medea should be considered a sinner or sinned against – but this would be an entire essay in itself!

For prospective viewers, I would recommend Bartlett’s adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, performed at the Richmond Theatre, very highly indeed.

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