Simon Stone made a contemporary version of Medea by radically adapting Euripides’s Greek tragedy about the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, who is abandoned by her husband and murders her own children out of revenge. Lived streamed at Adelaide Fringe Festival from the International Theatre Amsterdam, with a view of the empty theatre in Amsterdam due to the lockdown, Stone’s Medea adds a cinematic element into theatre that shifts the regular haptic experiences of live performance into a more optical one. Yet, the powerful performances of the actors together with the stage and light designs bring the audiences close enough to experiencing the play in a multisensory manner. This contemporary version of Medea has entirely different plotlines than the original myth, yet it still revolves around two timeless themes of love and affairs and the extent that they might undermine our existential being. Stone’s Medea attempts to unearth the dark side of human existence through the protagonist’s devilry, madness and obsessions. While the plot revolves around the female protagonist, its scope extends to a broader spectrum by highlighting the qualities of the contemporary human in a world disintegrated by different forms of morality.
Inspired by Euripides’s story, the protagonist, Anna (played by Rose Byrne), is not a daughter of a king, but a successful doctor who attempts to forgive her husband’s affair with a younger woman. Midway into the story, Anna realizes that her various plans to have her husband and children back have failed, and Lucas and his new wife are moving to China. As her final plan, Anna finds only one way out: to kill her husband’s new wife as well as her own children and herself. Taking advantage of Euripides’s tragic mythology and melancholic thoughts, Stone presents his own proposition: “What if someone woke up today, and discovered that as much as they were trying to run away from it, they’ve… ended up being Medea?’” (1). Hence, for Stone, the question is not so much about alienating the audiences but about bringing them closer, reminding them that one might not be able to escape that fate, because one might be “more circumspect, more evolved, because [one] has been to therapy” (2).
Stone’s skillfulness in distinguishing sensational elements, with Anna constantly dismissing the false notion of reconciliation with her husband, was praised by various theatre critics as well as audiences (3). The Guardian notes that “the staging is brutal, leaving the performers nowhere to hide. They don’t need it: this flawless ensemble has created a raw masterpiece” (4). Indeed, as a postmodern theatre production, the intimacy of the staging created an intense focus on the performances of Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale. Byrne, Cannavale and the other cast members perform impactfully on a minimalist stage: a blistering bright empty and white set designed by Bob Cousins. At various points in the performance, the back wall of the stage rises to reveal a bigger upstage space. According to Darryn King (5), “a cyclorama creates the disorienting illusion of seamless infinity – the endless expanse of the audience’s collective imagination”. Except for white light, which floods the pace, there is nothing else to concentrate on, so the element of performances is inevitably highlighted. Visual and performative elements are used to portray the potent dominance of modern human subjectivity over the classical approach to theatre. This means that unlike the classical theatre—of Aeschylus and Sophocles—that relies on deeper character development and staged conflict (6), Medea focuses on feelings as a mechanism to illuminate the unfolding of tragic events. Such an unfolding is intensified through visual elements, which in Medea’s case is the lack of artifice and intense shadowless light (7). Such staging enables the performers to expose themselves more vulnerably and enables the audience to take on the emotions more openly. This is not an entirely unique idea for a production, but it weaves different elements into each other tightly. The story of Medea is timeless, and Anna’s ignominy and ignorance need to have some external projection onto the stage, hence the empty stage and the shadowless light. While the factual elements of Stone’s adaption are told in a linear structure, the form of narration is deliberately nonlinear to emphasize the existentialism of the context. Therefore, the camera’s projection, in a tie with production, plays a significant role as a motif in different elements of mise en scène, such as lighting, costume, and minimalistic stage, “all stressing the bleakness and detachment associated with modern life and high-tech mania” (8).
Yet one question still needs to be asked: if the camera mediates between the audience and the stage, then to what extent is the multisensorial experience of theatre compromised? To answer this question, a phenomenological understanding of theatre needs to be unpacked. In the Questions of Perception, Juhani Pallasmaa (9) advances a line of thinking that stresses the significant role the body plays in perceiving the environment. By drawing on a model of embodied cognition (borrowed from the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), he argues that the body is not a passive object controlled by the mind but bears an active subjectivity that can influence our thoughts. The bodily experience of theatre that the audience comes across in Medea resonates with the experience of bodily isolation in the pandemic. As a live-stream production, Medea offers a haptic or multisensorial experience by drawing on the performers and audiences’ subjectivity. According to Máire Eithne O’Neill (10), the haptic mode of perception is a way of understanding the environment beyond visual-spatial perception and involves the combinations of senses, such as “touch, positional awareness, balance, sound, movement, and the memory of previous experiences”. In this view of haptic experience, Medea is not so much about staging and physical bodies in space, but instead, the traumatic experiences of a woman who, desperate to take her previous life back, kills her children. Perhaps the lack of body in space and a form of cinematic perception helps to intensify the emotions and the pains within the play. As Stone profoundly states, “Medea is about the power of a woman who once again experiences the exclusion she once felt in a dim and distant past”(11).
To drive this theme within the production, Stone reduces all distracting elements of costume and staging and relies on the power of the camera to touch upon an experience: the trauma of a woman who used to be powerful and strong, but upon losing her power and fertility, is abandoned by her husband and her own children. Aesthetically simple, Stone’s production aims to explore existential matters such as “power, sexuality and gender” intensely (12). This is not much about Anna’s manipulative and psychic obliviousness as it is Lucas’s inability to acknowledge that his ex-wife still needs help and medical assistance. As the build-up to Anna’s final fatal act, the audiences observe a scene when Anna talks to Luca via phone, but there is no actual telephone, but only voices coming from behind the phone. Therefore, Medea creates a form of phenomenological theatre in its blatant abandonment of a linear sense of time and space that relies on audiences’ subjectivity to follow the narrative. Other personas are coming and going into the stage without a shift in the spatial representation, but we still could imagine that they are at home, are in the street, and are in the office. When Anna kills Clara (Lucas’s wife), there is nothing but black ashes and a bottle of fake blood with Clara standing still in the middle of the stage. Yet, these objects clearly connote the bloody murder scene. When the narrator uses voice-over to explain how Anna poisons herself and her children and sets the house on fire, we only see the white stage and the black ashes piled in the middle, yet we sense the flame. Therefore, Medea is triumphant in exploring human pain and encouraging audiences to engage with different levels of stories subjectively.
Stone’s Medea brings forth new insights into the myth of iconic Greek tragedy, with a powerful ending that shows Lucas standing still and being captivated by the ashes of his family. Through minimalist staging and using cinematographic techniques, Medea makes us question the relationship between theatre and cinema once again. Using the hapticity of theatre and relying upon cinematic techniques, this play attempts to challenge the underestimated destructiveness of power, which in Medea’s case, is conveyed through Anna’s relentless cruelty in taking away everything in revenge for what has been taken away from her.
- Soloski, A. 2020. “Simon Stone faced the unthinkable. He thinks you should too.’” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/01/theater/simon-stone-medea-bam.html
- Soloski 2021
- Haynes, N. 2019. “Medea review – a funny, brutal and raw masterpiece.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/07/medea-review-barbican-london-simon-stone
- Haynes 2019
- King, D. 2020. “Designing a set fit for a tragedy in ‘Medea’.”, Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/darrynking/2020/01/25/designing-a-set-fit-for-a-tragedy-in-medea/?sh=3cbd55883dea
- Lumen 2021. “Classical Greek theatre.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-herkimer-westerncivilization/chapter/classical-greek-theater/
- King 2020
- Khani, S. 2019. “The inner monster of Steve Jobs comes alive on an Iranian stage with Mehran Ranjbar’s tale.”, Accessed March 12, 2021. https://thetheatretimes.com/tag/mehran-ranjbar/
- Pallasmaa, J. 2006. Questions of perception: phenomenology of architecture, William Stout, San Francisco.
- O’Neill, ME. 2001. “Corporeal experience: a haptic way of knowing”, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 55, no. 1, p. 3–12.
- Toneelgroep Amsterdam. 2021 (2014). “Medea.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://tga.nl/en/productions/medea
- Grin, F. 2021. “A tragic displacement.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.auditoriummag.com/medea
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.