Tag Archives: Euripides

Wine, Women and Song


Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd March, 2015


This new version of Euripides’s tragedy by Anne Carson has more laughs than you might expect. Observations about wine and women being a bad mix, for example, bring bathos to high drama and round out the humanity of the characters – this we can relate to if not their extraordinary circumstances. The staging is simple: distant hills are suggested by mounds, over which the cast clamber and stalk like goats, and the mechanics of the theatre are brought into use without artifice: a lighting rig like a flying saucer hovers above the stage, mist billows from a smoke machine…

Out steps Dionysus, god of (among other things) the theatre; the sublime Ben Whishaw captivates from the off. He is more than human, he tells us, and we believe him. Whishaw’s slight physique and rich voice (I’m trying not to think of Paddington Bear) along with a winning smile and androgynous appearance (like Conchita Wurst on her day off) have both appeal and a suggestion of power kept in check. Sly humour twinkles in his baby blues. He has the god’s duality down pat.

Scenes are punctuated by a chorus of nine women. They are acolytes as well as commentators and their timing is impeccable, in their a capella singing and the beating of their staffs. There is a hypnotic quality to them: Orlando Gough’s compositions have a Greco-Baltic feel to them. I expect they will work themselves into ekstasis as the action approaches its gory climax. But they don’t. Pity.

The splendid Bertie Carvel is calm and business-like as King Pentheus, dispensing orders to random members of the audience, “You go and burn his house down”. He is cool-headed and efficient – until, in a scene that foreshadows Pilate and Jesus, he encounters the hippy from Hell in close quarters, and is persuaded to go and witness for himself scenes of Bacchic ritualised mayhem, dressed as a woman. Carvel is dignified and stately in his female garb, like a greying Jerry Hall. He later appears as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who is brought to realise what a terrible thing she has done to her own son.

Also excellent is Kevin Harvey in a range of parts: the elderly Cadmus, for example. It is the trio of men in the company who convey all the drama about which the chorus of women will comment. The men are the action, the women are the colour and the flavour.

The violence, as is the convention, takes place off-stage and is then described; our imaginations work better than any special effects – leading to a chilling and powerful denouement of sheer horror, as the god metes out his punishments to all and sundry.

It’s the power of the drama that affects, a couple of millennia down the line, in this stark yet engaging production. Whishaw shines, Carvel and Harvey add weight to Anne Carson’s lively and evocative script. James Macdonald’s direction, (using other-worldly sound design by Paul Arditti, and sudden, sharp lighting changes by Peter Mumford) takes us into a fantasy world where the outlandish events can take place. There are links to us: plastic bags, wheeled suitcases and so on, but it’s the human element that hits home.  You could link it with modern-day parallels about the excesses of religiously-motivated violence but for me it’s the longevity of a play and ancient theatrical conventions that strike at us in primal and esoteric ways that, like proud Pentheus, has me in pieces.

I emerge stunned into the Islington sunshine, having been engaged intellectually and emotionally. The line that sticks with me refers to another gift of Dionysus to mankind: “Wine is the cure for being human.” Now, there’s a religion I can relate to!

Divine!  Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Divine! Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Yes, Medea

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th November, 2012

Writer and director Mike Bartlett has brought Euripides’s millennia-old play bang up-to-date in this engaging and sometimes startling new version. The setting is a new-build suburb of detached houses in an unspecified British town. Friends and neighbours rally around divorcee Medea on the eve of her ex’s marriage to his dolly bird bride. An acute bout of sniping and low-level bitchery from friend (Amelia Lowdell) and neighbour (Lu Corfield) gives us quite a build-up before the eponymous protagonist herself descends the staircase of the doll’s house set.

Medea is unlike the other women. She is wild of hair and eye, and appears to be on the manic end of a bipolar scale. She exudes bitterness through the medium of sarcasm and we begin to appreciate how deeply the split from her husband has damaged her. That’s the set-up, at least. As the action unfolds, we learn there is more to Medea than a bad case of depression…

The landlord turns up – he’s the dolly bird’s father and he wants Medea out of the house pronto (Christopher Ettridge in a performance that would be at home in a Pinter play) and then the husband (Adam Levy) puts in an appearance, trying to be civil only to be greeted with recriminations (that lead to reminiscences and then to goodbye sex).

It seems that Medea is over the worst. There is a ray of hope with a potential new life in her male neighbour’s Spanish villa. She seems ready to make a clean break and start again…

Except Euripides and the ancient story aren’t going to let that happen. This is the calm before the storm. We may have dispensed with some of the classical theatrical conventions (the chorus, the masks) but Bartlett is wise to demonstrate that some of the old ways are still the most effective. The horror and violence happen off-stage and have to be recounted in dramatic monologues, allowing the audience to create the scenes in their imaginations. Suddenly this middle-class suburban backwater is home to shocking murder, born of vengeance and retribution. We see it in the headlines all too often: divorced parent kills the kids to spite the ex, but the play touches us deeper than this topical relevance. It is about our darkest desires to make those who wrong us pay. We are drawn to Medea because of her humour, her situation and her brittle strength (thanks to an electrifying performance by the marvellous Rachael Stirling). We side with her at first. But as her mind deteriorates we are shown this is not the way to go. The ending, on the rooftop, is cathartic for us as the audience – the tension has been released for us, but Medea is left with the agony of an existential prayer to a god who will not help her.

Ruari Murchison’s design brings to mind A Doll’s House in more ways than one, while remaining faithful to what we know of the way the Greeks presented things, with most of the action taking place in the street in front of the house. Mike Bartlett’s script is snappy and darkly funny. There are interludes of dumb show between scenes (replacing choral odes) underscored with music. We see Medea cooking dinner and plunging her hand into a pot of boiling water; in another, she puts her son to bed and has to return to his room to smash the game console he insists on playing through the night… It’s a stylish and effective way to keep the action flowing and reveal more about Medea’s mental state.

It’s a gripping, entertaining piece that, like Medea’s blade, cuts deep. Older than the hills, it feels entirely contemporary.