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.

An encounter with Theognis

Recently, I was looking through some old bookcases in my house and found this book:

This delightful little book contains a selection of Greek literature (surprisingly enough) from Homer through the three tragedians to Plotinus “the last great pagan philosopher” and many more besides.

So I was just flicking through this book when I encountered Theognis.

Honesty compels me to confess that I had never previously heard of Theognis. The only biographical information provided by this book is “Elegiac poet, of Megara. Mid sixth century B.C.” Intrigued, I quickly chose what must be described as a last resort for most aspiring scholars – a Wikipedia search. But I’m not going to provide a potted biography of Theognis here, because I can never compete with the myriad Internet-based encyclopaedias and reference sites which can do exactly that. So, back to the poetry:

At the bottom of p92 is a short poem rather enigmatically entitled “Gloom” by this edition, in a 1962 translation by Willis Barnstone:

Best of all things – is never to be born,
never to know the light of sharp sun.
But being born, then best
to pass quickly as one can through the gates of H ell ,
and there lie under the massive shield of earth

Fairly depressing, then. I liked it immediately.

It took me a little longer to locate the original Greek text. This I did with the help of the Perseus Digital Library: the above is lines 425-428 of Theognis’ work:

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου:
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

And without further ado, my translation:

‘Tis best, for earthbound mortals, best of all not to be born,
And not to see the light which from the harsh bright Sun is torn.
But being alive, ‘tis best to make haste through the gates of H ell ,
For under a piled-up heap of earth forever must one dwell.

Clearly I took some liberties with the original text. The repetition of “best” in the first line essentially serves to fit in with the metre of my translation, while a small leap of the imagination was required to produce “torn” – a word which, as well as making the rhyme-scheme work, fitted in rather neatly (I felt) with the sense of pain and danger associated with the Sun in the original (“ὀξέος”), and which Barnstone conveys using “sharp”.

The use of a rhyme-scheme in itself will probably require some justification. I think that the words I have chosen to make up the rhymes express their own sharp contrasts. “Born” is usually a positive, hopeful image, which is put in a negative, unpleasant light by the rhyme with the word “torn”. Meanwhile, the location of “ H ell ” casts a shadow of suffering and misery over “dwell”. The rhymes in my English translation almost make this poem sound like an aphorism or a maxim – which fits in with the style of the rest of Theognis’ poetry.