Medea: The once-otherworldly sorceress as a worn-down, bitterly jilted woman

Theatre review: Eileen Walsh faces a challenge in this childcentric take on the tragedy

Medea, neither wholly deranged or demonic, remains unknowable. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Medea, neither wholly deranged or demonic, remains unknowable. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

MEDEA

Gate Theatre, Dublin
★★★
Children are usually seen and not heard in Euripides’ version of Medea. They’re fought over by two bitterly separating parents, Medea and Jason, whose relationship as a sorceress and an adventurer had always been pretty rocky. They are used as instruments in their mother’s elaborate revenge against her rival. And finally, in the legend’s eternally shocking climax, they are murdered – with as much rash violence as chilling calculation. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the myth tells us, but to children it giveth no voice at all.

Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’s 2012 play Medea sets out to correct this by confining the audience to an ominously locked bedroom, as Medea has done to her offspring. In a recognisably contemporary space, which Alyson Cummins trims with soft Ikea furnishings and a landfill of plastic toys (heroes and monsters, musical instruments and imitation weaponry: all the classics), we first find young brothers Leon and Jasper (Oscar Butler and Jude Lynch on opening night, who alternate with Elijah O’Sullivan and Luke O’Donoghue) lying on the floor, playing dead.

The scene is chilling for anyone acquainted with the plot of Medea, who will watch the play as a helpless prelude to their tragedy. It is still more disturbing to anybody who cannot push another Irish tragedy – one that is far too recent and too real – from their minds.

That echo brings another layer of complexity to the play’s impulse, which is to fold the qualities of startling myth into the texture of everyday life. In a game the boys play to pass the time (more Stoppardian than Beckettian, for two characters in the wings of a classic) the children name a string of animals: some real, some extinct, some fantastical.

The children in Medea. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
The children in Medea. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

As they innocently recount the story of their parents’ marriage – partly informed, partly protected, often perceptive – the play similarly translates each epic quality into more familiar, domestic terms. Jason’s golden fleece here becomes a reassuringly warm sweater; a manly keepsake for a neglected daddy’s boy. The Other Woman is referred to, with poignant modern euphemism, as “Daddy’s friend”. And, familiar as they are with “origin stories”, all the boys know about their mother’s bloody past is that it may have been as bad as smoking.

That makes the brilliant Eileen Walsh’s task all the more challenging, portraying a once-otherworldly sorceress as a worn-down, bitterly jilted woman, whirling between affection and cruelty in her pyjamas. Like the boys (who, for the most part, admirably hold the stage alone) we get only some of the picture, seeing Medea in fraught visits, where Walsh’s tight smile and rising pitch mask her real emotions.

But what are those emotions? And what is her state of mind? Medea professes all-consuming love in frightening terms (“I scream it into my pillow every night”), while locking their bedroom door with a heavy clank. The play asks us to see her a real person. But how do you solve a problem like Medea?

Director Oonagh Murphy, alive to similar confinements in the play’s limiting, naturalistic approach, includes subtle details that suggest something more – a bedroom, decked in glow stars, that seems to belong to the cosmos – but mutes disturbing others: the humiliation of a child, held captive, who wets himself, or the unimaginable situation of a boy trying to negotiate his freedom. We have always understood their horrific situation instinctively, though, without the need for adaptation, elaboration or modernisation: it’s how we’re wired. Medea, on the other hand, neither wholly deranged or demonic, remains unknowable.

Runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, February 22nd

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.