Medea by Euripides: NT Theatre Production translated by Ben Powers, directed by Carrie Cracknell

the curse of (our) children’s blood be on you” Jason to Medea (Philip Vellacott translation)

I had heard of live British theatre being filmed for audiences worldwide to enjoy but hadn’t given it much thought until an English friend said this production of Medea was not to be missed. When it turned up in Cinema Nova in Carlton, around the corner, it seemed to be a message; I had just received the cover of my psychological thriller, Medea’s Curse, due out January 28th, and though familiar with the story, had never seen a production.

The British reviews declared it a “tragic force” (Michael Billington, The Guardian), and “thrilling and merciless…appalled and strangely elated…” (Charles Spence, The Telegraph). I expected it to lose a little, with neither the rawness of the characters there in front of you (for surely had they stumbled over the words the film crew would have returned the next night) nor the advantage of locations that a film provides. But I was wrong. Indeed, so powerful is this performance it transcends either form. In a small theatre in Melbourne, Australia, you are not just taken into the National Theatre in London, but also to the heart of ancient Greece two and a half thousand years ago. The language was modern rather than that which Euripides penned. But so are the emotions: of the characters and those evoked in us. It is a performance not to be missed.

Helen Garner in The House of Grief writes about how difficult, if not impossible, it is to believe that a parent could kill their children in cold blood, vicious and intent on revenge, rational and without the pretence of insanity. Robert Farquharson was found guilty (twice) of doing this to his three sons and then rushing to his wife so he could watch her face when he told her. Arthur Freeman threw his daughter over the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne, acting out the rage he felt to the wife who had spurned him. Whether we can imagine them or not, these acts happen.

Prior to the movie interviews with Cracknell and the lead actress Helen McCrory suggested there was some debate about Medea’s state of mind when she kills her sons. That if not mad, then at the least it is an understandable act in the setting of severe loss—not just of Jason who has deserted her for another woman, but of her own family, and country, which she had sacrificed for him. McCrory in her interview clearly had managed to find a deep connection: even off set she exuded a deep power and intensity that bordered on scary. As Medea, she is truly magnificent: a woman stripped bare and who from the ashes cannot build herself into any form that puts anything other than her own pain—and the need to ensure her ex-husband shares it—at the forefront. She and the African-English nurse who bookends the performance wear “wife-beater” style t-shirts that accentuate their arms, managing to make then fierce and forces to be reckoned with despite physically being dwarfed by the portly and imposing Jason.

Euripides played this with an all-male cast to an all-male audience: a cautionary tale one would have to imagine. One that one wonders might be at the heart of cultures and organisations that today seek to hide women away, prevent their education. But as Freeman and Farquharson show, this rage projected and acted out onto children is not confined to women. This is about failing to honour the right of the child, as their own entity, and not as someone that belongs to the parents.

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About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has over 25 years clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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