A Tragic Displacement
I remember reading Euripides’ Medea for the first time in school. It was hard to relate to. The language, characters and its world seemed distant and removed from me. Medea is a woman who sacrifices everything for her partner Jason, only to eventually be replaced by a younger model, leading to her ultimate revenge. It wasn’t so much the infidelity, the murders or her madness which haunted me. What really stuck with me was how Medea had suddenly, almost inexplicably, become invisible to the man who for whom she’d once meant everything. The idea that her values had an expiration date or shelf-life seemed to be the most startling tragedy.
Still, it is understandable why this myth of Medea continues to be revived and staged. Simon Stone’s version for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep Amsterdam) at the Barbican is an exceptional example of how the play can be adapted in a highly contemporary style and made relevant to today’s audience. Though aesthetically simple and stripped back, Stone’s production is loaded with insightful explorations of power, sexuality and gender.
In this adaptation, Medea becomes ‘Anna’ – a woman who has become somewhat invisible in her world. Anna has lost her top job at a large pharmaceutical company after rumours surrounding her erratic behaviour. Jason is now ‘Lucas’ – Anna’s husband and co worker, once her subordinate – who has climbed the professional ladder through Anna’s support. He’s also conveniently having an affair with the boss’ daughter, Clara. Upon the discovery of the affair, Anna has been slowly poisoning Lucas, leading to her institutionalisation. The play starts off at the point where the two meet upon her release to negotiate the conditions of her return.
Bob Cousins’ design and Peter van Kraaij’s dramaturgy work together beautifully to evoke cyclical themes of life and death in a production which sits carefully between naturalism and
otherworldliness. The stage is initially completely blank, pure white and clean – much like birth. But as the production progresses it becomes slowly stained – first with red wine, carelessly dropped by Anna – and later, as tensions climax, with a black ash which piles onto the stage as Anna comes closer to her own ending. She bathes in it, accepting and welcoming it as she approaches her final decision.
Anna is played by the highly naturalistic and moving Marieke Heebink. In some ways, just as Medea is in the myth, Anna feels physically removed from us. Here, through the use of live film footage projected above, a close-up of Anna’s face illustrates a new perspective. Anna’s words may suggest she is “alright” and ready to face a potential separation, but her eyes are loaded with fear and vulnerability. This closer inspection reveals she is terrified of abandonment, of becoming disposable. Heebink’s portrayal of Anna transforms her from a mythical character to an everyday, relatable woman. At one point, having discovered that Lucas is now having a baby with Clara, she breaks down. Lucas holds her on the ground as she lies, legs spread, in a position that alludes to giving birth. This is strongly symbolic of the cycle of life, which in Anna’s case, seems almost too short. She’s lived, loved, had children – and now, there’s an ending of sorts. Anna accuses Lucas of no longer desiring her after their children were born. Lucas eventually agrees. “You made it feel like chore” he says. “I just wanted to connect with my husband,” Anna cries. And in this way, we almost understand Anna’s choice to slowly poison Lucas. As she explains, it was never to kill him – it was to keep him at home, where she could care for him and be of use again.
The two younger women in the play, Clara (Lucas’ love interest) and Mary-Louise (Anna’s social worker) offer a brilliant layer to these dynamics. Although we understand Anna’s frustration as she agonises over these younger women claiming her space, the effortless performances by Eva Heijnen and Jip Smit, in their respective roles, make it difficult to dislike them. Heijnen’s Claramoves seamlessly from cunning, brutal manipulator to powerful empathiser, especially in one of her final scenes when she asks Anna what’s she’s doing with the children on their last night together. Clara becomes nervous, overly enthusiastic on Anna’s reply that she’s taking them to McDonald’s. Heijnen desperately evokes this character’s final attempt to ignore the stark reality of the situation. The two women have more in common than initially meets the eye. They are simply existing at different points in their own shortened timelines.
Aus Greidanus carries off the silent panic and complexity of the role of Lucas excellently, from beginning to end. At one point, after giving in to Anna’s final attempt at seduction, he’s caught on camera by their two sons filming a documentary. In this moment he brilliantly expresses his emotional position – seduced by these two women, somewhere between bliss, panic and confusion.
Stone’s Medea, despite its stripped-back approach, illuminates new insights into the myth of this iconic Greek tragedy. In a powerful ending, as Lucas spends what seems like eternity looking at the ashes of his family, it leaves us with a feeling of overall sadness. Are we all pawns in the politics of this world, or is there room for transformation?
photos | ©Sanne Peper