The first impression I had walking into Complete Works Theatre Company’s Medea was one of awe and anticipation. Zoe Rouse’s imposing set design speaks of the drama and grand spectacle of Medea’s story: an impressive entranceway flanked by pillars and the haunting, white-faced, red-cloaked figures of the chorus who stare, unseeing, at the audience throughout the performance. And from the moment Jennifer Vuletic steps out on stage to deliver the opening lines, with Naomi Rukavina’s Medea sobbing in the background, there is no doubt that this will be a grand classical production. However, I felt that in trying to emulate this grandeur of the Greeks, with a tendency to present rather than play the scenes, director Andrew Blackman and his cast have not fully captured the extreme passions of the text.
The performances were very good, the actors were clear and concise with fantastic diction and projection. They obviously had a firm understanding of the story and language, demonstrating great pacing in their delivery. Vuletic makes a fantastic Nurse, wrestling great slabs of text into a performance that captures and holds the audience as she lays the story out for us.
But while the narrative was easy to follow, and the elements of humour that Blackman teased out were subtle and well-won, the performances ultimately lacked the ferocity and finality that is inherent in Medea’s story. The rich, even tones of the actors’ voices didn’t quite reflect the extreme events of the play: a character who had just seen a young woman’s flesh melt away recounted the experience calmly and clearly, and Jason’s condescending tone had a lack of urgency or desperation that I would have expected from someone confronting a woman whom they had seen murder her own brother.
Medea is and extreme story. Certainly, playing such extremes could take a production into the realm of melodrama, which this production, to its credit, avoided (aside from the jarring lighting and sound effects when Medea takes the knife to her sons). But this production was a little too far the other way: the clarity and conciseness of speech and movement didn’t quite reflect what was at stake.
That being said, Rukavina made an excellent Medea. Her stage presence was electrifying and she portrayed both grief and anger with phenomenal intensity. Yet, there was a sense of disunity in the character, the different elements of her nature – the scorned wife, the loving mother and the proud and vengeful outsider – never quite met on stage. We certainly felt the full force of each of these phases in Medea’s character, but it wasn’t clear how she was making the leap between them. This, of course, is the most difficult element of Medea’s character, it is a question that has plagued theatre makers for centuries: is Medea a monster or just a misguided mother? While we cannot expect a production to answer such a question, I felt that the division in Medea’s character was too clear cut: one monologue would be played as the grieving woman the next the unremorseful sorceress with very little play between the two.
Philip Cameron-Smith also delivers a strong performance as Jason, he has an excellent voice which lends itself so well to classic texts. But I found this Jason somewhat jarring; smarmy, condescending, self-righteous and seemingly oblivious to the danger that Medea pose. He was simply too dislikeable. This is the man who Medea, fiery and unyielding, is meant to have fallen so completely in love with that she kills her own brother to be with him, and then her own children just to spite him. There was no love between them onstage, and I found myself questioning why Medea wouldn’t just kill him on the spot: the way he was speaking to her, telling her how a real woman behaves, even I was thinking about it. Medea’s great love, even in her hatred, is what drives her to land the ultimate blow upon her husband. Their story is one of great passion, restrained because of Medea’s otherness. Indeed, the pressure that Medea’s otherness brings to the text – in that it is Jason’s main justification for his infidelity and an additional pressure on Medea as she is living in an alien country, exiled from her own people – is somewhat underplayed in this production.
The chorus (Brigid Gallacher and Jennifer Vuletic) was also somewhat underwhelming, presenting the story rather than playing it. While the title, ‘Chorus ‘, certainly suggests a unified group, I have always found that Choruses that speak in unison and move in choreographed steps detracts from the poetry of the text and the significance of the Chorus’ relationship with the story. In this case, the Chorus represents the women of Corinth who at first support Medea but are unable to reconcile her plot for revenge with their own morality. This is an interesting arc, often shared by the audience, and would perhaps be more effective if the Chorus was played as a group of individual characters.
Rouse’s costume design for the Chorus also suggested that they were spiritual, ghostly figures rather than simply women of the city. But Rouse’s other costumes are simply excellent. Medea’s exquisite robe and statement crown that she wears as she ascends to the heavens are absolutely stunning. Fin Cooney’s composition is delicate yet effective: the opening strains sound eerily like an abandoned swing moving in the breeze. Though at times, the sound drowns out the actors. The lighting, designed by Julia Knibbs, appeared somewhat constrained by the huge space of the Union House Theatre: there seemed to be some dark spots on the stage, but Knibbs made good use of footlights for dramatic effect.
Complete Works Theatre Company has a strong background in educational theatre, and I think that this clear and grounded production of Medea certainly serves as an excellent introduction to a classic text that will appeal to young audience members. It was well-paced, with good performances and strong design elements but ultimately, I found it too safe: it lacked extremity in its portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the Western canon and the tragic collision of alienating otherness, fiery passion and motherhood.