We are in the midst of a cultural phenomenon with contemporary British theatre. From Six, to Emilia and most recently & Juliet, many creative teams are positing the question ‘what if?’ surrounding history and literature’s most overlooked and misunderstood heroines. What if Henry VIII’s wives all started a girl band?, What if Emilia Bassano was the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets?, What if Juliet hadn’t taken her own life? (Personally I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a rock opera about Florence Nightingale).
Thanks to the Fusion Theatre Company, Medusa is the next female figure to have her narrative snatched back from the primed jaws of patriarchy. It asks the simple question – what if Medusa had been the narrator of her own story?
It is clear from the beginning that this company care intimately about their subject matter and the viewing experience that they provide. The performers each take turns saying their names, heights and describing themselves. As a collective they are the chorus but each of the female performers also portrays the infamous gorgon at one point. I enjoy this impactful metaphor for the common experience that many women suffer at the hands of men; being silenced, condemned and violated them only to have our stories then stolen as well. This narrative is still outrageously pertinent.
The physicality of the performance is striking. Each performer inhabits the stage with confidence and ease, falling, writhing and striding. With their bodies and minimal props they are able to create the deadly depths of the ocean, the temple of Athena, Medusa’s cave and the sun kissed mountaintop where Medusa and her sisters lived in her youth. They create a striking tableau as statues each frozen in fear serving the dual purpose of being Medusa’s only company and a painful reminder of her cursed existence.
The audience become unexpected characters as the delighted Medusa realises that we have not been turned to stone. “You’re so…soft!” she remarks with an awed smile. It is our arrival that finally allows her to tell her tale. She is not a vengeful monster, nor a temptress luring the innocent into her clutches to destroy them. She’s insightful, self-aware and even witty but most of all, a victim.
There are some exceptionally striking moments in the piece including Medusa’s introspective monologue that is shared across the company and across 6 different languages. We see the heroine with an intimate inner voice that is externally incomprehensible to outsiders mirroring the way that her fateful eyes render any physical connections impossible.
When Medusa’s sisters Stheno (Rhiannon Kelly) and Euryale (Nell Hardy) beseech Athena for mercy, their words are so heartfelt and pained that a shiver passes over me.
In the final moments before Medusa’s execution we see the famed hero Perseus (Samy Elkhatib) reduced to a trembling boy standing before a weary, hardened woman with nothing left to fear. It finally feels truthful, like the long overdue retribution owed to a tortured woman.
The narration resembles audio description and is paired with closed captions projected to the right of the auditorium. Instinctively flicking between the heavily narrated action and words is slightly distracting. The piece is the most emotionally effective when the action can speak for itself and the projections should appear on the backdrop of the stage in the future – though I do applaud the company’s efforts to produce fully accessible theatre.
Musical portions tend to drag and some performances are markedly stronger than others. Overall, Medusa is a perfectly enjoyable feminist revitalisation of the myth that I hope will see more elaborate staging, costumes and practical effects.
Medusa played at The Pleasance Theatre until 15 November. For more information, visit The Pleasance Theatre website.