Euripides’ infamous tragedy Medea is one that many have tried and failed to adapt into a modern context. Phoenix Theatre Company’s adaptation of this multifaceted tragedy, however, is undoubtedly a success. Despite having a relatively good understanding of the plot, I still left the theatre in shock.
Charlotte Culley and Jack Coombs both shine as Medea and Jason. Culley in particular was incredible at reflecting the turbulence of Medea’s emotions, making the audience feel both sympathy and horror towards this complex character. Culley doesn’t fall into the trap of simply shouting every single one of her lines in order to convey Medea’s fury, instead creating a gradual crescendo with her voice whilst ensuring to use quiet moments effectively.
Meanwhile, Coombs does an exceptional job at making us all collectively despise Jason. He masters the art of the patronising stare, subtly ridiculing Medea and providing the audience with at least some level of understanding of her rage. The sexual tension between Medea and Jason is palpable in every one of their scenes together, further contributing to the complexity of both of their motivations as characters.
In their director’s notes for Durham Student Theatre, Emily Oliver commented on how Medea and Jason’s relationship mirrors the relationship between “the Coloniser and the Colonised”. This was encapsulated in the opening scene, featuring the entire cast in front of a screen stating, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”. It was an impactful start that had me intrigued about what themes would be explored over the next couple of hours. Small references throughout the play, such as the featuring of cardboard boxes across the stage, physicalised the uncertainty and turmoil many immigrants experience in society today. Oliver uses nuanced set choices to make the modern implications of the play apparent.
As with any classic Greek tragedy, this production also played with the notion of the chorus. Instead of seeing them on-stage, this version’s chorus appeared in video format, shot outdoors and surrounded by chirping birds. These video performances were just as good as the ones on-stage, despite the transition to the screen in the background feeling a bit disjointed at first. The use of video was by far more effective in the second half of the production, as the surroundings in which the scenes were shot became gloomier, reflecting Medea’s inner turmoil and darkness.
One aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the incorporation of jazz and soul into the production. The first time we see Medea on stage she is putting a record on, the bright turquoise record player starkly contrasting the bland monochrome set. Following Medea’s murder of Jason’s soon-to-be bride and father-in-law, a palace servant details the murder through a passionate monologue, accompanied by an interpretive dancer and soulful saxophone solo. I was initially dubious about the incorporation of dance into the scene but by the end of the monologue I was hooked, as the choreography subtly reflected the story being told on-stage.
Even more impactful was the closing song, which ended the entire play: ‘At Last’ by Etta James. We are reminded of the opening scene with Medea as she returns to the record player, this time laughing manically and covered in the blood of her own children. As the song plays she walks away victoriously, in contrast to the ending of the 2014 National Theatre adaptation, in which Helen McCrory (as Medea) drags the corpses of her sons off the stage in tears during the depressing final scene.
The set was what I’d expect from an adaptation of this kind: attempting to be modern yet simultaneously timeless. We’ve seen similar designs be pursued in other versions of the play, including the previously mentioned 2014 National Theatre production. Cluttered with cardboard moving boxes, the set reflects the sense of upheaval Medea experiences throughout the play, whilst also providing the perfect props to be satisfyingly kicked down in fits of rage.
The choice of a meat cleaver as the murder weapon was also an intriguing one. Normally some kind of dagger or knife, this more brutal and obvious weapon placed greater emphasis on the true violence of the murders, a crucial addition given that we never actually see Medea’s two sons in the flesh. I also thought it was impressive how we don’t witness that much blood or gore. Yes, Medea does have blood up to her elbows by the last scene, but this practically blends in with the symbolic red of her stunning off-the-shoulder dress, contrasting Jason’s understandably more dishevelled, untucked shirt. With such a small cast, the symbolic costume changes were even more pronounced and effective. Whereas Jason is the most put-together in the first half, dressed in a clean-cut suit, by the end the tables have clearly turned.
Oliver’s smart directorial decisions are evident throughout the production, from the use of video to the choice of jazz as the play’s soundtrack. The simplicity of the set, costumes and lighting allowed for a clinical and calculated feel, making the intense and intimate emotions portrayed on-stage even more impactful. From the moment the play started I was engrossed and by the interval I was already anticipating the second half. All in all, the cast and crew have done an incredible job of putting on Medea, making it comparable to, if not better than, other professional adaptations of Euripides’ masterpiece.
You can find out more about Medea, or book your tickets, here.