I recently saw Northern Broadsides' production of Euripides’ Medea, as envisioned by Tom Paulin of erstwhile Newsnicht Review fame. Although in some respects I am in sympathy with the Yorkshire-based company's broad philosophy, that sympathy may not survive the encounter with their actual material. Their production of Medea hits
The tale of Medea is a curious one, hardly the stuff of light comedy. Jason, whose previous heroic experiences involve a certain golden fleece, chucks Medea for a more youthful, Queenly bride. Revenge is plotted in the boiling skull of the slighted anti-heroine. Killing off Jason’s spouse-to-be using a poisoned dress, Medea crowns her revenge against her unfaithful husband’s happiness by murdering their own children. Unlike Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where there is divine intervention to restore equilibrium and justice, Euripides version of deus ex machina is far bleaker. Despite her villainous acts, Medea is whisked away on a golden chariot drawn by fiery dragons with the bodies of her boys – leaving Jason to his earthbound grief and Medea’s wrongs totally unpunished.
But back to Northern Broadsides – whose every succeeding scene will make you wish you knew a sun god with a divine sedan chair going spare and the benevolence to work your liberation. The responsible director (or should that be, the guilty man) also appears in the piece, which is generally a bad idea. Performing his parts with laboured, emotionless self-satisfaction, Barrie Rutter (for ‘tis his name) seems to regard walking fixedly as an important dimension of high dramatic portrayal. Observing a stodgy, significant retreat – his posterior conveys a certain poetic gravity as it creeps from the scene, lingeringly. Medea herself roars and rages - giving me cause to suspect that the actress (Nina Kristofferson) would be a grand panto villainess. There was a moment (pursuing a charming section where she got a big set of cymbals out and smacked them about a bit, no doubt to denote mental anguish of some stripe) when she cried “Bwahahaha!” Luckily, the audience was fairly anaesthetised and gerontic in composition. I imagine if any kids had been present they’d have cried ‘BOO! Hiss!’ anticipating a spot of banter with Snow White’s wicked stepmother. If a young wag had cried out 'Its behind you!', I'm not sure I'd have survived the ensuing existential crisis, brought on by melancholy reflection on the seconds of my life, sacrificed on the altar of Paulin's woozy Hellenic vision.
Perhaps the most cack-handed aspect of this production - which has more grimy mitts combining to make dirty work than a primary school class issued a bucket of chocolate fondue - is the chorus. Performed by three youthful bints in silage-coloured smocks who lapse into an occasional, insipid harmonica harmony, Rutter’s wheeze is to turn them into totally inhuman commentators. These dull, motionless harpies line up across the stage like traffic bollards and drone at the audience, or the characters, with all the dramatic flair of mixed concrete. I saw a splendid rendition of the Greek chorus in the Tron a couple of years ago, where three old character actors, crumpled twinklers who knew their business and played their parts humanely, gossiped engagingly as the tragedy of Antigone unfolded. They were just the stuff. That is what the chorus is meant to represent in Greek tragedy, after all – the reflections of ordinary mortals on the less ordinary drama of the protagonist’s travails and disasters.
The young witches three in Rutter’s production, however, declaim their platitudes sorcerously before decamping to commit an occasional, spiritless drum solo or inexpertly hoot on a saxophone. All highly profound and avant-garde in Rutter’s imagination, I’m sure. This consciousness, however, made these pulpy, alienating digressions seem even more absurd. In sum, by far the worst, least subtle, embarrassingly staged piece of professional drama I’ve seen in many a May. If like me you’ve a cankerous side, there may be impish enjoyment in a night spent appreciating the finer points of the disaster. If so, troop down to the Citz in March and blink disbelievingly as this lumpen production thuds by.