views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen


The Cockpit
31st July 2018


Publicity image for Medea

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Wretched Strangers bring us Greek tragedy in this adaptation by Paloma Jacob-Duvernet of Jean Anouilh’s 1946 play. Medea (Camille Wilhelm) has discovered that husband Jason (Piotr Mirowski) intends to leave her and marry the daughter of Creon, King of the village (Massimo Guasti). Nurse (Carole Le Clanche) looks on concerned - and fed up - at Medea’s incessant rage and increasingly violent plans for revenge. Jason sends a friend (François Carpentier) as a messenger to try to talk, but to no avail. The stage is set for retribution on a grand scale.

There is a director's note at the back of the programme saying how important it is to discuss identity and your right to be someone and be somewhere in this age of Brexit and #MeToo. As Medea finds herself an outcast (a barbarian, no less), staging such a production resonates now in a way that perhaps it wouldn’t have only a few years ago, both in terms of someone’s sense of belonging and a woman's perceived rights and boundaries. Staging a classic of a classic when it’s really needed also sets a high bar - there was a buzz in the lobby before the house opened, the noticeably international audience expecting a treat.

The first thing to note is that nothing really happens for the first 45-odd minutes. The production seems to spend three-quarters of its runtime setting the scene, before a final 15 minutes of high drama... however, was it tragedy or comedy? More on that later.

The only member of the cast who stands out as having true, dependable subtlety is Le Clanche, who got most of the laughs with her hip flask swigging and head-shaking. Wilhelm, whilst notably clear and audible in the face of bad staging decisions (again, we’ll get to that), makes a rather insipid job of rage to the point where it becomes white noise. Although the belligerence was there, it was more mildly-spoilt brat than full-on psychopath, and when she finally ordered Nurse to grab the chest with the robes in, it felt like an anti-climax because Wilhelm had been shouting her mouth off for the last three-quarters of an hour anyway. More focus on a variety of tempo and volume could have calibrated the audience better for this moment.

Mirowski presents as a walkover, standing there with hunched shoulders, shifting nervously on his feet and clenching his hands, more cuckold than womaniser. It simply isn't believable that he was capable of leaving such a self-driven, terrifying person as Medea, let alone to re-marry.

Credit where credit is due, whether or not the pace, volume or movement needs an overhaul, the cast were practically word-perfect - one or two sporadic stumbles are expected in such a wordy production, but they were extremely minor and didn’t detract from the performance.

The rationale behind staging this in the round was peculiar - yes, it's a great feature of the Cockpit. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to put the audience on all four sides if that doesn't work with the individual production. The venue has a flexible enough layout to adapt. Here, we either spent half the show looking at the back of someone or watching them twizzle around like music box dancers, a major distraction that took away from the gravity.

And then the balloons came on. At that point I started to like the show - I do enjoy surreal, and the decision to use helium balloons (one healthy, the other one drooping) to represent the children who were about to be murdered had me paying attention. By then though, a lot of the audience were confused as to whether they were watching a heavy tragedy or a light-hearted comedy take on it - it had felt too serious for the most part to suddenly be presented with this. Was it even meant to be funny? Whilst laughs can be skilfully stitched into a tragedy to add punctuation, this felt more like "Let’s throw in something silly at the end to cheer them up".

I really wanted this show to succeed - I was part of that buzz in the lobby, I was one of those itching to see it brought to life. The decision to stage it - and to do so with a deliberately international cast - was honourable and very relevant to our times, but if anything it seems to have been allowed to overshadow the need for quality, leaving the end product sadly uninspiring. With so much lacking, the buck must stop with the director for this one - casting, staging and refinement all left a lot to be desired. Hand me Nurse's hip flask.

Medea ran on 31st July 2018, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)

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