Review: Medea, The Barbican

Simon Stone’s taut, modern adaptation of Medea pulls no punches so I’m not going to either: this is a brutally unflinching journey exposing many of the darkest elements saturating our everyday humanity. Taking place before Bob Cousins’ clinically white set, it is a production that leaves us with nowhere to hide from its unsettlingly recognisable exploration of callous domination and pitiless violence. If this makes you feel uncomfortable then Medea probably isn’t for you.

Drawing on the true story of Debora Green – a doctor who has been in prison since 1996 for attempting to poison her husband and killing two of their children by burning down their house after he began an affair – Stone brings Euripides’ tragedy powerfully to life on the contemporary stage. The story centres on two doctors, the mercurial Anna (Marieke Heebink) and her husband Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr.), unspooling from the point when Anna is released from the psychiatric hospital in which she has been rehabilitating since poisoning Lucas. As she tries to reintegrate with her children and community, however, the play soon complicates any simplistic moral interpretation. Lucas’s affair with Clara (Eva Heijnen), the 24-year-old daughter of his pharmaceutical company’s boss, is only made more painful by its dismissal of the preceding years of Anna’s carelessly unacknowledged work on her husband’s behalf to simultaneously raise their children and guide Lucas’s research towards the prize that has oiled the wheels of his career.

This is a production which continually reveals and disrupts the casually oppressive assumptions that structure our society. From the opening scene in which she presents a painting of Noah’s Ark capsizing and the animals drowning, it is clear that Anna is no longer prepared to conform to traditional patriarchal narratives and will challenge their persistent authority, whatever the cost. By the production’s horrific conclusion, it deftly enables us to understand, if not condone, the final act of suicide and infanticide as the ultimate rejection of the submissive, gentle, discarded, unsung mother her society tells her she ought to be.

That this is a Dutch-language performance (with English surtitles) of an ancient Greek play highlights the pervasiveness of these insidious norms with great effect. This is buttressed by the eloquent physical acting of the formidable, alarming Heebink and the spineless Greidanus Jr. which means the crisp dialogue is never difficult to follow.

On the other hand, the feeling of bleak inevitability that settles over the action, like the ashes streaming down onto the stage during latter scenes, threatens to reinforce the narrative of gender imbalance it seeks to unsettle, as it offers only nihilism as an alternative. A further effect of this inexorable destruction is almost to absolve the characters of any individual responsibility for their actions. Anna is one of these, of course, but this lack of agency is especially prominent in the weak-willed Lucas and even Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the pharmaceutical director whose machinations are easily unbalanced.

In reliving a story that feels just as transgressively hopeless as I imagine it would have done two and a half thousand years ago, Medea remorselessly reveals that, despite all our modern trappings, our live-recording technology and cutting-edge medicine, we are still struggling to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the casually abuse and destructive cruelty ingrained throughout our deeply-gendered society. Just don’t look for any answers here.

Medea is playing The Barbican until 9 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see The Barbican’s website.