By Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate MulvanyDrama Belvoir
This heart-stopping, wildly original update is to Euripides’ Medea what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to Hamlet: a behind-the-scenes look at the lives that minor characters live before the plot takes over.
While parents Jason and Medea conduct a raging fight offstage (one that the audience knows well), two young brothers, confined to their bedroom, play games to distract themselves. At some point, their mother comes in to pack their things, telling them they’ll be going to live in a mansion with Dad’s new special friend.
Instead, she will poison them, after delivering a poison present to Dad’s friend, for which the boys have signed the card.
This is a beautifully wrought play, one that focuses on the innocent joys of childhood – making it all the more tragic when that is taken away. ‘Ultimately, that’s what the tragedy of Medea really is: that the innocence of childhood can be so abruptly stolen away by the choices of adults,’ says Kate Mulvany.
‘There was something about the heartbreaking combination of knowing and innocence that compelled me,’ says Anne-Louise Sarks, whose brainchild the play was. ‘How does a child see the world? And how do they understand such an epic event?’
In this masterful play, Medea herself is reconfigured, not as a mythical monster, but as an ordinary woman pushed beyond her limits to do terrible things; a woman driven by her passionate love for her family.
‘The writers focused carefully on what works on stage, rather than what reads well on a page,’ says Time Out. ‘The result is a memorable contribution to the dramatic literature of one of the most powerful myths to evolve from oral transmission onto the stages of the world.’
In their shared bedroom, two little boys play, diverting each other while they wait for their parents to resolve their differences on the other side of a locked door. The boys’ mummy is named Medea.
This startling re-examination of one of our best-known myths is taut, tender and terrifying. There is not a wasted word, and the climax, despite being known to us from the outset, horrifies almost more than the original by Euripides. It feels inevitable yet astonishing, innocent yet knowing, fresh and yet ancient. A remarkable achievement. A towering miniature.
To reinvent a classic play is a brave endeavour: one would have to quell the concerns of the anticipatory audience by not messing about with the original too much, and yet there also has to be a spark of invention to the adaptation. After all, why even bother to write a different version if you’re not going to tinker with the old one a little?
Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany have certainly created a startling new dimension to Euripedes’ best-known and perennially-staged play. They have updated it to a modern setting but rather than concentrating on the protagonists, Jason and Medea, they’ve chosen to focus on the victims of their warring: their young sons. By shining the spotlight on these minor players (in both senses of the word) and relegating the couple offstage, Sarks and Mulvany have added a layer of complexity to the drama. We are deliberately distracted from being caught up in their fiery, hateful dynamic of lust and retribution, and are led to contemplate the innocence of childhood instead, too easily overridden by the all-powering concerns of adults.
Leon and his brother Jasper (aged around 12 and 11) share a bedroom and the show opens with them alternating between being bored and being entranced in an imaginary world of playacting with toy guns and bows and arrows. They also (rather ominously) play dead. The boys’ teasing and bickering interactions are pitch-perfect. Their bedroom door remains locked and they are told they have to stay in there until Mum and Dad sort out ‘marriage stuff’. They can hear muffled noises and crying outside. Jasper starts telling his pet fish the story of their father’s quest to find the Golden Fleece and how their mother helped him. Medea finally makes an appearance only to inform her children that their father wants them to move in with him to the ‘mansion’. She asks them to sign their names on a present especially made for ‘Dad’s friend’. She smells of chemicals. Later she will also bring them cordial laced with poison.
Obviously a prior knowledge of Euripides’ original play will deepen your appreciation of this behind-the-scenes version.
Amazonian but an average woman, desperate and at the end of her tether. The fact that the audience already knows the tragic end doesn’t marr the chilling lead-up.
Thuy On is books editor of the Big Issue and has been a theatre critic for the Australian.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist