Black Medea ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Black Medea

Black Medea by Wesley Enoch, directed by the writer. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Rachel Burke, sound design by Jethro Woodward. With Margaret Harvey, Aaron Pedersen, Michael Morgan/Jesse Rotumah-Gardiner and Justine Saunders. Beckett Theatre @ The Malthouse, until June 5.

A while back, around Nietzsche, the gods deserted classical tragedy. They were scaled back to psychological symbols: the Furies became externalisations of Orestes' guilt, and Oedipus' fate - to kill his father and marry his mother - became an expression of subconscious desires.

These interpretations are a reasonable response by post-Enlightenment culture to the questions posed by these capricious arbiters of human fate. To the rationalist West, pagan gods could seem perilously silly. But it can be argued that tragedy lost as much as it gained by the psychological domestication of the gods: the sacred and the divine are as much part of the tragic experience as catastrophe.

One of the fascinating aspects of Wesley Enoch's adaptation of Medea is that the gods are back, as potent, implacable and bloody as ever. Enoch has freely transposed the legend of Medea to indigenous themes, and his muscularly poetic text excavates an often obscured aspect of its chthonic energy. Here Cypris (Aphrodite), the main mover of events in Euripides' play, is replaced by the vengeful ancestral spirits of Central Australia. Since the ancestral spirits are also the land, they have a literal potency that can resonate with even the most secular white.

Like the original, Enoch's Medea (Margaret Harvey) is a wise woman, a witch privy to the magical traditions of her people who betrays her heritage for the love of Jason (Aaron Pedersen). She leaves her desert home to marry a handsome, ambitious Aboriginal from the city, her "ticket out". By marrying the stranger she violates the complex kinship codes of her people, and she compounds her crime by selling her knowledge of the land to mining companies, leading them to the sacred places where she knows they will find ore.

Jason is, however, as much an exile as Medea. What destroys their relationship - as much businesslike pact as passionate sexual love - is the desert wind brought into his house, unwittingly, by Medea herself; a fate that howls through the front door and which speaks to him, through Medea's ancestral spirits, as his madness. His faithlessness is in some ways more profound than the original Jason's; he doesn't marry another, but instead completely loses touch with himself. He can't keep a job or support his family, and descends into a cycle of alcoholism and violence; a fate, it becomes clear, also suffered by his father.

Finally, despite Jason's deep emotional dependence on Medea, he obeys the promptings of the elder spirit (Justine Saunders) and throws Medea out of the marital home. Medea, who no longer has a home to return to, and who can see for her son only the same future as his father, murders her own child in revenge and despair, savagely ending the paternal cycle of violence.

Medea's act seems, interestingly, also a revenge on those spirits that drive her husband mad and demand that she bring her son home to the desert: she will hand her son over neither to his father nor to her own people, where he will suffer only another kind of disposession. It's a startlingly bleak expression of the conflict between traditional and urban indigenous cultures, offering no chink of hope. Perhaps what makes this story genuinely a tragedy is that there is no hint of moral judgement: Medea and Jason are trapped in the tension between conflicting imperatives which are both, on their own terms, in the right. The spiral towards catastrophe unravels from the wider injustice of their situation.

Enoch's production is unapologetically theatrical. As Medea, Margaret Harvey is skin-tighteningly compelling; the force of her curse literally gave me goosebumps. Harvey's full-blooded cry "I am Medea!" stands with "I am the Duchess of Malfi still!" as a great theatrical moment of defiance against fate. Aaron Pedersen's performance matches Harvey's, switching between terrifying violence and snivelling weakness. Justine Saunders plays a double role, as Old Medea narrating the story and the tribal spirit manipulating Medea and Jason, and her performance shifts from benign comedy to implacability.

Christina Smith's claustrophobic corrugated iron set, spectacularly lit by Rachel Burke, frames the story in brooding darkness. Among the most potent scenes are a number of swift, wordless vignettes, flashing out of the dark to a driving score, that give poignant glimpses of a disintegrating family. For all its classical provenance, Black Medea is powerfully contemporary. Enoch seamlessly weaves together with naturalism the heiratic, ritualised action of classical tragedy, giving the play both the intimacy of a domestic drama and the grand, extreme gestures of tragedy. It makes thrilling theatre.

Picture: Margaret Harvey and Aaron Pedersen in Black Medea

Malthouse Theatre


Anonymous said...

Dear Alison,
All that you say is true.
But I wasn't convinced of Medea's' motivation to murder in this version. It seemed little stretched.

Stunning production - sets, lighting etc - though.

All the best
Pam Brown

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Pam - nice to see you here! The question didn't arise in my mind (perhaps this says something about me! should my kids should be worried...?) - I had no trouble seeing why Medea would kill her son, given the set-up; maybe at the literal level, the revenge motif seemed very strong to me. Yes, absolutely stunning production -

Very best


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jens - I'm seeing double!! I think I deleted one copy but I've lost track, so I'll leave as is in case I delete everything...

I didn't read the play as nostalgic - return to the culture she had so comprehensively betrayed wasn't an option for Medea, either. The last glimpse of Medea, if I'm remembering rightly, is of her kind of being swallowed by the desert - a rather alienated image, surely? Though perhaps it is intended more ambiguously than I took it... The picture looked pretty bleak from all angles to me.

Also, to my knowledge, which is hardly expert, there is indeed a tradition of dramatic storytelling and performance in indigenous culture, if not theatre as we know it. I found the integration of western and indigenous myth fascinating as a formal proposition - to me it implicitly suggested a hope that was completely absent from the play itself, a possibility of something besides the drastic either/or choice that destroys that mythic family.



Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

Some great points. The conflicted motivation and the tension between the naturalistic (kitchen sink) traditions of past Indigenous works and my need for a larger poetic canvas are some unresolved issues in this production. I really wanted to appropriate the western classical form and try to make it my own. The issue for me is I want people to know MEDEA by Euripides but then I don't want to be held to it. Cake and eat it too? Maybe.I really enjoyed your insight.....some people don't get the history I'm commenting on and the whole traditional aspects of integration of artforms to tell stories. I've been amazed how many 'purists' have come out of the closet saying that this kind of appropriation is 'not allowed'. Great to see some informed debate on this site. Congrats.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Wesley - nice to see you pop up here! And may I say congratulations!

Re your comment: I've been amazed how many 'purists' have come out of the closet saying that this kind of appropriation is 'not allowed'.

Black Medea has clearly struck some nerves, and not only with those who have seen it. I have had a couple of very strange arguments in other forums about this play, along the lines that either, by placing these two traditions together, you are promulgating some kind of cultural essentialism (or I am in my review) or that European and indigenous cultures can have nothing to say to each other. and that this kind of appropriation inevitably compromises both, creating a kind of exotic kitsch.

I am actually mystified. Art couldn't exist without artists appropriating work and ideas from each other, and this kind of cross-cultural fertilisation has occurred for millennia. I wonder if these "purist" reactions apply to Picasso's African-influenced scultptures? or to an early 20C Dubliner appropriating an indigenous Greek poem from 500BC in Ulysses?? Presumably not...