Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, directed by Deborah Warner
A decree has gone out from Her Majesty’s Stationers Offices banishing all stationers from the theatre district. I was hoping to buy a new notebook there for writing about the London theatre, and still may; but for now I commit a few back pages of another notebook to this pressing and very pleasurable task.
Arrived in London, solo this time, early in the morning of Thursday, March 15, staying in a flat that a companion and I have rented several times over the past few years, in Endell Street, Covent Garden. Drury Lane parallels it running north, a turning or two to the east, and it is situated just around the corner from the Covent Garden tube station, from which only a few minutes’ walk southeast takes you to the Royal Opera House (and Drury Lane Theatre, for that matter) or, a few minutes west, past the Garrick Club to the many theatres of the West End.
I was in one of those theatres tonight — the Queen’s, on Shaftesbury Avenue, near the top of Wardour Street — to see Fiona Shaw in a new production (and new translation) of Euripides’ Medea, directed by Deborah Warner. It is the most horrific myth in western literature, the story of Medea’s colossal retribution for all the deep wrongs she has suffered at the hands of Jason, her faithless husband, and the world at large — that retribution being the quadruple murder of Jason’s new bride, the Princess of Corinth, her father Kreon, and the two small children that she shares with Jason. It reads as simultaneously vindication and profound self-destruction on Medea’s part.
This production of Warner’s leaves no depth of indignity unvisited. We are in a post-modern Corinth, a near-derelict city, where monolithic glass walls and opaque glass sliders have been constructed in the bleak surround created by the unlovely walls of the stage itself. In the center, a shallow wading pool; nearby, cinder blocks piled up as if for use in new construction, but their presence only serves to emphasize the desolation of the place. High on the back wall of the stage an undulating reflection, seemingly more organic and living, seems to remind us of the proximity of the sea, and of the voyagers, Jason and Medea, who have fled one dysfunctional civilization for another. The chorus of Corinthian women, seven in number, young or middle-aged, dressed in the miscellaneous near-grunge that passes for everyday dress in modern cities, whose inhabitants are hard-pressed to make a go of it but are nevertheless subject to the pressures of funk fashion such as vibrant purple hair. Placed among the nondescript, ordinary but soon deeply engaged local citizens, Fiona Shaw’s Medea, in her simple sleeveless black dress and incongruous orange cardigan, seems both to tower above them and to allow connection with them.
This is a stunning, harrowing production. The audience is held in the iron grip of a remorseless action that rises and rises with intensity and inevitability, in unflinching confrontation with the inexorable truths of human life that mark Euripides’ drama at its best. In this production he opens wide the depths of human cruelty and forces us to confront such unspeakable faculties for evil that, we fear, may lie unexamined in our own hearts. Jason’s faithlessness, hero though he is, has a wretched, tawdry meretriciousness about it that makes the man loathsome, or would make him such, were it not for the gross banality of his self-indulgent, self-illusory pursuit of the next episode of the Golden fleece, in the fetching person (whom, luckily, Euripides spares us the sight of) of the Corinthian princess. If the translation is at all accurate, Euripides has given us this picture of stunning banality, a character whose exploits and determination are on a par with those of Odysseus (though not sustained for so long a time), but whose sycophantic toadying to the majesty of Corinth, in the person of a dyed-blonde, Long Acre-suited Kreon, makes him even more repulsive.
Still and all, Medea’s vengeance on him is so far in excess of what a jilted wife might be thought capable of wreaking that we really have no way of assimilating it. None. And so all we can do at the end, after we have heard the report of the gruesome deaths by poison (Medea’s wedding gift to the princess) and have seen with our own eyes the bloodied corpses of the two boys, carried back onto the stage limp and lifeless by a mother who proceeds to wash the blood from their arms and feet, is to sit engulfed in silence at the horror of it all.
Shaw’s Medea and Jonathan Coke’s volcanic Jason are a match (except for Coke’s occasional over-the-top vocal incoherence), in more ways than one. What makes this production gripping — what makes it really work — is not simply our vague sense that we are living in a post-Holocaust world. Warner has correctly seen that Medea’s toxic hatred of her former husband has not at all obliterated the deep passion for him that drew her to betray her parents and country for the sake of this man, to promote his interests, even to save his life (as she reminds him at a critical moment). The result is a deep plausibility that underlies the connection, the attraction Medea and Jason still feel for one another, and that in turn makes Medea’s revenge all too believable, finally: only a woman who has loved as deeply and unreservedly as she might finally be capable of such a horrendous retribution, such a furious retaliation.
Shaw is an intensely physical actress. There is a huge nervous energy that enlivens every movement, giving it an extraordinary tensile strength. It is almost as if she has too much energy for the role. It is a huge outpouring, and it is clear that this Medea cannot help herself, that she is acting out of a deep, ungovernable instinctiveness, even while she uses intelligence and cunning, backed by an indomitable will, to work out and execute the strategy that will prove the undoing of all. I will not forget the image of Medea, sitting in the pool, her dead son in her arms, washing the blood from his body. (Warner’s directorial genius, it should be noted, extends to eliciting the most remarkable performances from two young children, perhaps five or six years old at the most, that I’ve ever seen.)
The chorus, it should be mentioned, spoke all of their lines individually, and the division of sentences and phrases among the seven women was done so skillfully that rudimentary characterizations emerged. Like the audience itself, they are privy to Medea’s unspeakable plan; and they are no more able to intervene in it than we are.