MEDEA - The Greek tragedy heroine's pain transmuted into every betrayed and marginalised woman's pain 
by Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

March 2002

Medea - the term evokes two images – Medea (of the Greek mythology) who helped Jason to capture the Golden Fleece, and Medea who, subsequently betrayed by the very same Jason who married the daughter of King Creon, taking revenge by killing not only her rival and her father, but her own children. Medea has always been described as a woman of passion and revenge. Her intense passion led her to take extreme steps. Medea's story has political connotations; the intrigues that existed in the Greek city states, the rivalries and the thirst for power. Medea, the woman was, in other words, not just a heroine but, a victim of the society she lived in, trapped within the musty corridors of that system.  

Medea has excited playwrights all over the world. There have been many versions of Medea. Still, a new version has the capability of exciting the imagination of all theatre lovers. So, it was with great expectations and excitement that the Chennai audience went to see the new "Medea", a theatre performance, presented at the Music Academy by the British Council. The playwright is Liz Lockhead and the director, Graham Mclaren. It was a production of Theatrebabel from Scotland. 

The play single-handedly concentrated on Medea, leaving aside the other political nuances. It did some exploration into Medea's psyche, but the narrative in general had a direct approach, which robbed the play of rising above the ordinary.  Medea, enacted by the actress Maureen Beattle dominated the stage at all times. Even when she was not present on the stage, the chilling scream, which came from offstage, reminded the audience of her. Once she entered the stage, dressed in red, the rest of the actors and actresses turned into mere appendages or devices to carry on the continuity of the story.  The mercurial changes in a whole range of emotions, from the rage she felt at her betrayal, the cunning with which she planned the revenge, the scorn with which she met her rival, Princess Glauke, the pain in killing her children, the final satisfaction of having achieved her aim, all were effectively portrayed without overacting or melodrama. In fact, everything about the actress was contained, her movements, her facial expressions, her very body language. She was the new Medea, risen from the ashes of the old, classical Medea. 

The other aspect of the play, conceived differently from the Euripedes play, was the chorus. All Greek tragedies have choruses, who take on the roles of observers, narrators, commentators and critics. In the very structure of the play, they are the connecting links between events, people and situations. But in this play, with its all-woman chorus, dressed alike, speaking together, moving and acting together, they created a different aura apart from fulfilling their conventional functions. They became the conscience keepers of Medea, her alter ego, prompting her to go this way or that, cautioning her, applauding her. They also became the representatives for all the women of the world or a leit motif for the eternal woman. They did their job to perfection and held the structure of the play together.  

The other elements of the play were well conceived and executed. The stage was almost bare except for the three chairs and an entrance from behind. The actors and actresses spoke well - the entire dialogue was very lucid and clear. They moved well and apart from the voice, used their bodies also as a part of the acting language. The lighting and the other background sounds were good. The music was restrained, evocative and suggestive.  The script itself, very carefully written, interspersed with a kind of dry and at times street humour, definitely had an unbroken flow and was arresting and powerful. 

The only criticism that this writer has is that it was too direct a play, both in its script and in its presentation. It probably was a reinterpretation of the play written by Euripedes, giving it a new feministic touch. But the feminism itself was too direct and was hammered in that it did not have the finesse of exploration. Euripedes left Medea as an enigma - we only get glimpses of what constituted her; we do not really know what prompted her to do what she did. But the new Medea does not allow us to have an exploration into the psyche of Medea. Poor Medea!  She did not have the privilege of being an individual woman whose intensity of emotions unleashed the dark depths in her and prompted her to do what she did. No one realised that she cannot be made into "any" woman or "every" woman; but that was what she became, an archetype for passion and revenge. The modern construct of Medea goes one step ahead and makes her into an apostle for feminism, reading positive 
meanings even into her negative actions. Medea did what she did for herself, not to be quoted as an example for all women or taking up the cause of all women. For her redemption came only through revenge.  In this production, this fine distinction between an unusual  mythical figure and the standardised cult figure has been forgotten. 

Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject “Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala”. She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.