In the last year or so, London has welcomed a flurry of Greek drama to its stages; while the Almeida Theatre most notably offered its Greeks season, other venues have seen revivals of Electra (Old Vic and the Gate Theatre), Medea (National Theatre), Antigone (Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East), Oresteia (Shakespeare’s Globe) – the list continues. Further afield, National Theatre Wales staged Homer’s Iliad, while Oedipus arrived at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Whatever the reason, producers and directors are returning to these fundamental tales of love, revenge, desire and death all over again.
Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sacks’s take on Medea shifts the focus sharply away from the engineers of these stories to the innocent victims, depicting Medea’s children in the last few hours of this particular tragic tale. Leon and Jasper are locked in their room while their parents “sort out marriage stuff”. They laugh, they cry, they joke, they fight – and they play dead. Death is foreshadowed throughout this one-act play, from the games of the two boys, to their empty threats of “you’re dead”, to their speculation of how to kill the ‘evil stepmother’ figure of “Dad’s friend” (“watch her suffocate on our fart gas” is the answer, of course).
Mulvany and Sacks’s dialogue skilfully sketches the interaction between two young brothers – their deep-set rivalries and their unbreakable bond, as well as their unintentional hilarity. The writers never lose sight of the fact that children are naturally funny, particularly these boisterous brothers, and the script leaves room for the young actors to improvise and make choices about their characters’ behaviour. It makes for a sincere representation of the children; their delivery and actions are natural, not precocious.
As Leon, the older brother, Keir Edkins-O’Brien successfully depicts a child on the brink of adolescence, happy to play games with his little brother but more sensitive to the emotions of his mother and the wider issues in his parents’ marriage. His confident performance grounds much of the show and keeps it on track. Bobby Smalldridge, as younger brother Jasper, is more impetuous and impassioned about every small development; it is his childlike fears and joys that create the most pathos in the dramatic irony of his doomed situation.
Emma Beattie’s Medea enters the room periodically and offers hints of the tragedy that is occurring outside of the boys’ oblivious sphere. Her urgent Medea feels distant to the boys’ world, as they stare, wide-eyed and bemused at her desperate outpourings of love for them. Here, the boys’ fate is not an impulsive act of bloody murder, but a calculated step in her machinations; they are not collateral damage, but unsuspecting pawns in a battle that is too big for them to comprehend, too horrific for the locked door of their bedroom to protect them from. In Amy Jane Cook’s design in the Gate’s small space, there is no fourth wall as such: the audience are in their room, at the mercy of foam bullets flying this way and that, but unseen by the boys and unable to help them.
There are moments where the pauses are too elongated, and the day-to-day actions of the children – playfighting, tidying their room – are continued that little bit too long, letting the energy slide. Yet overall this 70-minute three-hander , which is carried wonderfully well by the young cast of Smalldridge and Edkins-O’Brien: their performances personify stolen innocence in one of the most tragic myths from the classical stage.
Medea is playing at the Gate Theatre until 28 November. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Ikin Yum.