Black Swan State Theatre Company, in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company, present “Medea”, an adaptation of a Greek tragedy, cleverly directed by Sally Richardson. While Euripides’ original play focusses on the perspective of the adults in a family breakdown, this re-imagining by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, is told from the perspective of the children who are unwittingly drawn into the complex game-playing of adults embroiled in a bitter, family breakdown.

The children are Jasper and teenage big brother Leon who share a large bedroom filled with all the toys that boys could want. When the play opens the boys are asleep on the floor, in amongst the mess of the scattered toys, and as Jasper wakes, his first mission is to wake his brother who is playing ‘dead’. The antics that ensue between the brothers portray a playfulness and resilience as the boys try to make the best of a bad situation. We learn that the parents are sorting out a dispute but the boys expect all to be resolved soon and life to go on as usual.

The repetition of games and innocent conversations between the boys lulls the audience into their world, until the spell is broken by the entrance of their mother Medea. We learn that their father’s new best friend, a woman, wants the boys to live with her in a mansion, to which the boys react excitedly. Those who are familiar with Euripides’ original play understand the dramatic irony that surrounds these seeming mundane actions and reactions from the boys.

Medea’s sporadic appearances are understated until the final entrance when she stands in the doorway holding two glasses. When Jasper is surprised by being allowed to drink cordial so late at night, it is a heartbreaking moment that, for those who remember the tragedy, fills us with dread and distress. For those unfamiliar with the play, I suspect that the slow realisation of what is happening is equally shattering.

BSSTC’s production of Medea – by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, original concept by Anne-Louise Sarks after Euripides; at Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA; Perth, WA. Photographed on 8th August 2019, by Philip Gostelow.

In view of recurring events of domestic violence, this re-imagining is pertinent and topical. Kate Mulvany says in the program: “The play you are about to see is still “Medea” at heart, but for the first time ever we get to hear the children speak. We get to see them play. We get to see them laugh and tease and cry and examine their own existence. More importantly, we get to spend their last hour on earth with them when no-one else in history has. We become the community they needed…”. Originally conceived by Sarks, then joined by co-writer Mulvany, the idea (and subsequent script) is a prime example of the power of purposeful adaptation and re-imagining of classics for current audiences. The playful dialogue between the boys resists the usual platitudes and is punctuated by musings of the universe. However, the need for brevity perhaps was too acute as I found myself craving for one more offstage or onstage utterance from Medea earlier in the story, which would have created more dramatic tension for the boys to play against.

Alexandria Steffensen is mesmorising in the role of Medea. Though the role is significantly condensed Steffensen manages to pack the backstory, subtext and relationship with her sons into a few short appearances. Likewise, the performances of Jalen Hewitt as Jasper and Jesse Vakatini as Leon ease us into their lives with attention to detail in personality and a plausible sibling relationship. Audiences may see the alternating actors Lachlan Ives (Jasper) and Jack Molloy (Leon) at other performances and I’m sure these performances will be equally captivating.

It is evident that director Sally Richardson has worked with the boys to create the rapport and attention to detail that is crucial for this adaptation. Likewise, Laura Boynes’ movement direction and Lawrence Hassell’s fight direction enhance Richardson’s vision.

Bryan Woltjen’s and Tyler Hill’s set design make perfect use of the space detailing the lived-in bedroom of two boys. Equally, their costume designs reflect the personalities of the boys, and the change of costume for the final scene chillingly adds to Medea’s premeditation.

Lighting design by Lucy Birkenshaw augments the atmosphere, and Melanie Robinson’s sound design is simple and unobtrusive.

Medea is a provocative and heartbreaking adaptation of a classic. 4.5 stars

Pic credit: Philip Gostelow