Posts Tagged ‘Euripides’

My first Medea was at the Edinburgh Festival in its hey day, in the University Quad, in the open air in the rain, in Japanese with a man playing the title role. It was unforgettable and thrilling. Since then there was Diana Rigg at the Almeida and her daughter Rachael Sterling in Mike Bartlett’s reinvention for Headlong. The second Almeida outing with Kate Fleetwood was a slight misfire, but Helen McCrory’s career defining performance on the Olivier stage topped the lot. I’m fascinated by this 2500 year-old play.

Medea’s man Jason decides to trade up to a royal model, hoping to keep Medea as his mistress, but she’s having none of it. She engineers the death of his intended Glauce, getting her dad King Creon as a bonus, then she commits the ultimate crime by killing their sons, before an elaborate escape courtesy of the gods it seems. It’s staged here in-the-round with no design as such, a few props, a chorus of three and Ben Daniels playing multiple roles including Creon and Jason. It therefore relies entirely on the performances and Daniels and Sophie Okonedo rise to the occasion.

The trouble is that the space and Dominic Cooke’s production just aren’t big enough to capture the epic scale of the story. Having the chorus within the audience is a great idea, but falls a bit flat with only three. There’s even more happening offstage in this production, which made me feel like I’d have preferred to be at that play. For once a small space brings intimacy but loses scale. Go for the acting and sit as close as you can.

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It’s not often you go to the theatre and come out having seen something so far removed from what you expected. I was prepared for a modern adaptation of Seneca’s take on Euripides with a nod to Racine, but what I got was a shocking modern drama with a very tenuous link to its sources, yet its brilliant, thrilling stuff, if a bit over-engineered.

It’s set in a glass box that revolves. The actors are miked, speaking naturalistically, fast, overlapping, which makes it a challenge to absorb all of the dialogue. We start in the home of Helen and Hugo and their teenage son Declan. She’s a shadow minister, he’s a diplomat. It’s a very modern family where frankness and ripe language are the norm. Their older daughter Isolde and her husband Eric come for dinner. Everyone loves Eric. They’ve been struggling to have a child and are now investigating adoption.

We learn that Helen travelled to Morocco more than thirty years ago, a hedonistic trip where she had an affair with a married man who died in a car crash whilst she was there, his young son Sofiane witnessing his father’s death. The adult Sofiane, now around forty, unexpectedly, and seemingly inexplicably, arrives during dinner. He’s welcomed by all, but as the story progresses their lives are irrevocably turned upside down.

It’s impossible to reveal more without spoiling it, suffice to say it elicits gasps from the audience on a number of occasions, though there are plenty of laughs too, as the tale takes some very unexpected twists and turns. Director Simon Stone, best known here for Yerma at the Young Vic (also in a glass box but more intimate in a traverse setting in a smaller theatre) makes life difficult for himself with some very complex and long set changes, which slows the pace and lengthens it to 2h45m, though I understand this has been reduced by 35 minutes since the first preview. There’s a lot of time looking at a black screen, albeit with voiceovers and music.

We see too little of Janet McTeer on stage here since she’s settled in the US; it’s been seven years, but well worth the wait. Hers is a terrific performance as the somewhat self-centred Helen, around which everything revolves. The always reliable Paul Chahidi excels as the tolerant much put upon husband and father Hugo. French-Moroccan actor Assaad Bouab’s charismatic, magnetic presence ensures Sofiane is the centre of attention whenever he’s on stage. Notwithstanding the issues with the scene changes, Chloe Lamford’s designs are really striking.

Despite its faults, it’s a compelling and enthralling modern drama and I loved it.

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I’m fond of a bit of Greek tragedy, though at 3h45m this is more than a bit. It’s Ivo van Hove’s third mash-up, though the first two were Shakespeare – The Romans, which I missed, and English kings, which I saw. This combines seven plays, six by Euripides and one by Aeschylus, that take us from the sacrifice of Iphegene by her father Agamemnon to Elektra & Orestes’ revenge on their mother and her new lover for the murder of Agamemnon, their father. The decline of the House of Atreus, with the Trojan War as its backdrop.

It has the aesthetics of a rock concert, well heavy metal to be more precise, with an onstage band and the customary Greek chorus as dancers. At other times, there’s a percussive soundscape, again played live, with the cast sometimes joining in on makeshift instruments like buckets, and the scaffolding that covers the sides of the stage. The screen at the back presents us with family trees before we start and images, song lyrics and narrative during. Given the programme’s synopsis and character profiles, and the fact it’s in Dutch (with surtitles) I was expecting to be confused, but the linear narrative was very clear. The second half has a different feel, perhaps because it was first performed as Elektra/Oreste, but also because its performed in mud.

It’s both very physical and very visceral. The characters throw themselves around the stage in what seems like constant anger and rage. Revenge follows revenge in graphic scenes of torture and death. You don’t go to Greek tragedy for a fun night out! The attempts at finding contemporary parallels are subtle and valid. We do seem to be living in a new age of rage, challenging authority, the establishment and democracy itself. I was gripped by its theatricality throughout. It rarely lagged and I left the theatre as if I’d devoured a very satisfying feast.

I’ve seen many Greek tragedies in many locations and languages, from an entire weekend in a disused carpet factory in Bradford, in French, to intimate spaces where you can feel the actor’s breath in the air between you, though sadly never in Greece, and this is amongst the best. It was also my eleventh van Hove production, and I came to the conclusion that he’s at his best on such an epic scale.

Only two more performances at the Barbican Theatre. Unmissable.

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A musical based on a 2500-year-old Greek play featuring Shakespeare and G B Shaw as characters to be staged in a swimming pool. Well, you have to admire the ambition of Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This later version was meant for theatres and here we are getting the UK professional premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre more than twenty years after Broadway and more than forty years after the Yale original.

Sondheim appears to have only contributed choruses to the Yale show, perhaps as a favour for Shevelove as by now he’d had success with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, but wrote extra songs for Nathan Lane’s revision. The Yale original is now probably just as famous for featuring actresses Meryl Streep & Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang in the cast.

It’s faithful to Aristophanes in that Dionysos, the god of drama, decides that there’s a desperate need for good dramatists and heads off to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shakespeare there too and decides to stage a contest to choose between them (Euripides and Aeschylus in the original). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare beats the old windbag (Aeschylus wins in the original) and returns with Dionysos. A simple story, but with a timeless theme of the importance of the arts.

Lane’s version is a bit of a romp and, though far from Sondheim’s best score, there are some nice tunes and witty lyrics to propel the story, with cheeky contemporary references which delight. It’s well staged by Grace Wessels, with great use of Jermyn Street’s tiny space and nifty movement from Tim McArthur. The fun that the cast of just nine, let by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick Xanthias, are clearly having is infectious and the musical standards under MD Tim Sutton were particularly high.

An unmissable opportunity for Sondheim fans. 

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I left the Young Vic after this with a cocktail of feelings that included anger, sympathy, helplessness and guilt. I don’t go the theatre just for entertainment, I also go for learning, understanding and enlightenment and this was all three. It was a harrowing experience, but nowhere near as harrowing as the experiences of these women.

Thirteen Syrian women, all refugees, take Euripides play Trojan Women as their starting point. That play follows the women of Troy after the city has been sacked, their husbands killed and their families enslaved. You can see the parallel for a group of thirteen women who have lost or are parted from family members, living in a strange land, because of Syria’s civil war.

They tell us about their losses, how they miss their loved ones and their reception in the West. At one point they each talk about something they have brought with them, something they left behind and something they miss, which makes it all so personal. Speaking individually and as a chorus, occasionally in English but mostly in Arabic, with subtitles, we see the sadness in their eyes as well as hearing their tragic testimonies.

Like the concert of Syrian musicians at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks ago, this was a deeply moving experience. It seems to me it’s important to listen and good to provide a modicum of empathy. The theatre can do this and it should.


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There is much to admire in this radical, inventive though somewhat self-indulgently written Medea, but it falls at the last hurdle I’m afraid.

I’d never heard of novelist Rachel Cusk. Her Medea is a writer like her. She’s in the middle of a messy divorce (like hers, it seems) from Jason, an actor on the brink of stardom. He’s traded her in for a younger model who we don’t meet, but we do meet her dad, who’s a bit pissed off he’s losing his little girl. The chorus are Sloaney yummy mummies, initially cradling baby dolls. In the brilliant first scene her mum and dad are spouting ‘I told you so’ wisdom like only mums and dads can. She has a Brazilian cleaner who’s pretty good at revenge ideas. 

It’s a radical contemporary take, but I liked it – until it’s time to spill some blood, when it all went wrong for me in ways I won’t describe so as not to spoil it. Ian MacNeil’s striking modern two-story home (creating significant sightline issues for some) turns into an an equally striking impressionistic landscape, and the costumes seem to change at about the same time. Amanda Boxer and Andy de la Tour are terrific as the deadpan mum and dad, the latter returning as a Creon with great presence. Charlotte Randle, in addition to her part in the chorus, is an extraordinary half woman / half man messenger. Justin Salinger is excellent as Jason and Kate Fleetwood swops her Tracy Lord in High Society for a role as different as you can get as a vengeful modern Medea. I liked Michelle Austin’s cleaner, though her accent seemed to be all over the place. The two boys, whichever of the six they were, were great.

I felt the seemingly autobiographical elements were rather self-indulgent and this, together with the liberties taken with the story’s conclusion, were the fatal flaws in AD Rupert Goold’s production, which meant that it didn’t live up to the highs set by the previous plays in Almeida Greeks. A shame, that.

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The Almeida Greeks season goes from strength to strength with this second revelatory and intelligent production of Euripides last play, in a version by Anne Carson. It certainly does the god of theatre proud. I thought it was spellbinding.

It’s a battle between the gods, in this case Dionysos god of theatre and wine (my god!), and the mortals, in this case Pentheus, King of Thebes, whose grandfather Kadmos has passed him the throne whilst still alive as he has no son. Dionysos in human form as Bakkhos presides over all things hedonistic, with a retinue of female followers, including Pentheus’ mother Agave, partying up a nearby mountain. Pentheus foolishly decides to take him on and it all ends in a lot more than tears. It is of course playing out the conflict of human nature between rationality and instinct, with characters often describing events happening off-stage.

All of the roles are played by just three actors, as was the convention in the theatre festival where it was first performed 2420 years ago. Ben Wishaw is Bakkhos, the blind seer Tiresius and Pentheus’ servant who witnesses his demise, Bertie Carvel plays Pentheus and his mother Agave, and Kevin Harvey plays Kadmos and messengers. They all undertake brilliant transformations and they’re all terrific. The superb chorus of ten women perform with an extraordinary cocktail of speech, singing, chanting and sounds, dressed in skins and fur with headdresses of greenery and painted faces, moving and sounding as one. They are much more a part of the play than is usual in Greek tragedy.

There’s atmospheric music by Orlando Gough no less and unusual and highly effective lighting by Peter Mumford. It’s played out on a bare stage surrounded by and on top of what look like black slag heaps, which provide challenging entrances for the actors. I thought James Macdonald’s staging was masterly and it gripped me from Ben Wishaw’s prologue and never let me go for the next 110 minutes.

With the first two stunners, Almeida AD Rupert Goold has set the bar high for his own Medea in September!

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I’m partial to a bit of Greek tragedy and Medea is one of my favourites. I’ve seen at least one operatic version, one in Japanese in the open air in the pouring rain (wonderful, by the way) and I’ve lost count of how many on stage, though the most memorable was with Diana Rigg at the Almeida 20 years ago. So there I was in Richmond Theatre watching her daughter, Rachael Stirling,  in Headlong Theatre’s very up-to-date version.

The story is surprisingly intact (though Medea and Jason only have one child). King Creon is her landlord Carter who seeks to evict her rather than send her into exile. The nurse, chorus and Aegeus are all neighbours. By the time Jason returns from his fateful wedding to the landlord’s daughter, she has killed his son and is on the roof of their blazing terraced house (substitute for flying chariot!). Mike Bartlett (who also directs) has produced an excellent and (almost) completely plausible adaptation.

Rachel Stirling is superb as Medea. She looks like her mother, but that’s about the only similarity with the Medea I saw when she was just 15. There were moments when I had to turn my head; the intensity of her performance really drew me in to the character and her story. There’s luxury casting in the supporting roles with Amelia Lowdell and Lu Corfield as bitchy neighbours Pam and Sarah, Paul Shelley as Andrew (Aegeus), Christopher Ettridge as Carter (Creon) and Adam Levy as Jason.

An excellent fresh take on a 2500 year old play, but you’ll have to go to Exeter to see it before the tour ends next week!

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