Emma Beattie performs the title role in The Gates Medea, a production that modernises the ancient myth, showing it from the perspective of the two ill-fated sons.

With this focus on the boys, the eponymous anti-hero has moved off centre-stage. “Somebody asked me last night if I felt thwarted because I was doing this role, as opposed to the original text, and I said no I didn’t.” On the contrary, Beattie has embraced this new Medea. “It’s been very challenging, and I had to in some ways forget the original text and all the background,” she explains. “I’ve seen Medea done before, but when I read this script I was just so moved – I think it turns the idea of her as a vengeful, revenging monster on its head, and instead shows a real mother, that does love her children. It’s distorted, and it’s obviously not to be condoned, but the play is trying to understand this – what drives you from that undeniable maternal love to then kill your children.”

Beattie ultimately discovered what she thought to be this Medea’s justification for her actions. “It’s about preserving their innocence. I can’t just leave them behind to their father, I can’t leave them behind to the world – I can’t say the murder is an act of kindness, because it’s not kindness – but it feels to me the only way out for [the children], to be preserved in happiness, in love, and not to be distorted by the world that will inevitably destroy them and hurt them.”

Beattie is no stranger to the classics, and passionately believes they should be kept alive on the stage. Discussing her performance in The Odyssey, she said “the text dealt with abandonment and lovers departing and taking a long time to get back, and I could personally relate to that playing Penelope, because I had a relationship where a chap went off to Germany, saying that he’d come back, saying that he’d come back, for six months. And then he called and said no, I’m not coming back. So that waiting for somebody that you love…” was something the actor could very much relate to. “I think that’s just a personal example that these stories are relevant.”

Beattie went on to describe how Medea, too, can connect with current audiences through its exploration of difficult, broken relationships, speaking in particular about this production’s effect on two of her friends. “They’d gone through separations, they have children from those relationships, they both have two boys and it really struck them, that battle over the children.”

When asked about how this Medea’s Australian origins had an effect on the English production, Beattie commented “even though both the original and this production are in English, there are these differences – and they are very subtle differences – in the language. I think what struck me were the names of animals – there were some animals we don’t know in this country, echidna for example.” Aside from this, the texts had certain rhythms Beattie was not used to, and also used the word “darling”, when Medea was talking to her sons. “I associate this with a much more grown-up relationship, to be used with a lover, not a child.”

“I understood the writer had made the decision for Medea not to say the children’s names, that it wasn’t by accident but by design,” Beattie explained, but she nonetheless asked to change one of the darlings to “Leon”, then another to “Jasper”. This was the one edit she requested, and writer Kate Mulvany was receptive. With this small rewrite, the actor found “something rather beautiful happened”. This small act of translation, at the critical moment they appeared in the script, uncovered a new meaning to the scene.

Beattie maintained however that an actor can’t simply get rid of all the “darlings”. Rather, they must try hard to “make it work”, because it is important “to be accurate” with what the playwright’s creation. “We don’t want to tinker with the work too much!” she exclaimed. “I think that writers are really wonderful, and it’s a lovely collaboration…we collaborate on a tiny little moment, on something that just helps me, and the result was lovely!”

Medea is playing at the Gate Theatre until the 5th December. 

Image credit: Ikin Yum