Facing Medea review by Henry Shaw

****.5 stars

Facing Medea is a fascinating piece of theatre. Three actors react to the tale of Medea as they watch the tragedy of Medea unfold before them, attempting to understand why yet unable to intervene. Watching the production, I felt that language was a central theme of the piece. Director Jenny Kemp talks in her program notes about the nature of translation in theatre and the challenges with presenting a Greek myth that has been adapted into a French play and then translated into English. With multiple translations it might be expected that some context could be lost, but Facing Medea is far stronger for embracing its transnational narrative.

The story of Medea is inherently one of a foreigner in an alien land. Medea, depicted as coming from “barbarian” ancestors, doesn’t fit with the Romans she is surrounded by. Everything of her culture is stripped from her and she attempts to assimilate into her husband’s life, but is rejected and cast out of her home in favour of a more acceptable partner for him. Facing Medea takes these ideas and extrapolates them to a lot of communities, the language used often evoking European colonisation of Australia with Medea as an Indigenous character who is removed from her land and forced into the unknown. The use of language as a tool of colonisation provides the most powerful concepts in the piece, as each actor exposits in English but feels quite awkward and repressed, never truly emoting or connecting with the tale they are telling. I was confused by this direction choice at the start of the piece, forcing the actors into quite static positions and delivering the exposition without much emotion, but once they were allowed to speak in their own language the emotions burst out of them. In this way, we see that by forcing everyone to speak a common language we can alienate them from their own expression, cutting them off from conveying the subtleties in their thoughts and depth of emotions. As a society, we often see other languages in public places as hostile and demand that everyone speaks English, but in doing so it removes people from their ability to effectively communicate. Facing Medea puts this idea at the centre and shows us two worlds, a repressed world, static and emotionless, and a free world, where we might have to do more work to understand each other but where the cultural and emotional benefits of that effort far outweigh any slight inconvenience.

These themes are perfectly expressed by the three actors, each with very different and personal stories of how they got to this point. Australia is made better through our connection to other cultures and respecting the heritage of every person, but we are often told the opposite and made distrustful of “strangers”. The cast, with their blend of Australian, French, Swedish and Italian cultures, challenges the idea that there is a single definition of a foreigner. Each actor brings a unique perspective on the events in front of them, Iris Gaillard seeming wary and distrustful of those around her constantly, angry at the injustice she sees. Annie Thorold plays her character with an inquisitive mind, looking for answers and hoping for the best. Carmelina Di Guglielmo brings a more level headed approach to the situation, often trying to reason with the others. Each of the actors have individual characteristics, but also act as a monolithic force vicariously inhabiting the character of Medea. While each of the actors in unnamed, their anonymity becomes part of the power as they present insights into the story that more biased parties may not be able to and the strength of the show is in these performances.

Sound design was used to enhance the tension throughout the piece, unrelenting hums throughout the exposition sections kept the audience on their toes and accelerated the pace of these sections. Clever use of lighting isolated different sections of the stage to differentiate between scenes and effectively removed the actors from one another, figuratively and literally. The minimalistic approach to set and lighting drew attention to the hero of the piece, the text and the performances, without losing their own personality, the silhouette and shadow effects were particularly effective.

Facing Medea is far more than the sum of it’s parts and shows us a unique take on stories we have heard before. There is no hand holding and the show can be quite confronting, but if you’re interested in an evening of contemplative theatre that leaves you with more questions than answers then Facing Medea is for you.