My Mother Medea flips the ancient tragedy of Medea on its head by removing the focus from the tragic heroine and placing it on her doomed children, while transporting them to 2016.
The show launches itself with a punchy opening as the two teenagers declare themselves refugees. At once, we are clearly bang in the middle of the current migrant crisis and post-Brexit tensions, and Eriopis is not afraid to confront us with their foreignness, their otherness and their refusal (more so than their inability) to fit in.
Natalie Pryce’s set design places Eriopis and Polyxenos in their new classroom; we the audience are the class they must face, sat at schoolroom tables and chairs complete with doodled exercise books and pencilled graffiti. Under Justin Audibert’s direction, Stephanie Levi-John (Eriopis) and Lawrence Walker (Polyxenos) move constantly around the room, weaving amongst the audience. The classroom becomes their playground as they exchange siblings’ banter, and their battleground as their pour out their frustrations about each other and their parents’ tattered marriage.
Aimed at younger audiences aged approximately 14-18, David Tushingham’s dialogue is perfectly pitched for teenagers, but is hugely enjoyable for adults too. Employing current cultural references without overkill, it is a punchy script that captures the characters’ rage, frustration, wit and awkwardness. Levi-John struts around the room brashly for much of the show, at first apparently your typical gobby, show-off difficult teenager. She is also wonderfully funny and confrontational, as well as fiercely intelligent. Over time, her exterior is worn down to reveal a core as hard as steel – her speech about cruelty is sharp and stinging – but also her devotion to her mother and even her brother, despite their obvious differences.
In contrast, her brother is nervous, awkward and geeky, although Walker makes him incredibly endearing and he rapidly gains our sympathy. The strains of the parental relationships, exacerbated by the extremes of their circumstances, are felt more keenly in his dialogue as he both hero-worships his father and is wounded by the constant barbs of disappointment that Jason does not bother to hide. While for the first segments of the show Levi-John dominates, it is worth the wait to see Walker’s talents burst through as Polyxenos’s assertiveness grows.
The only point where the production falters is in its final moments: having revealed the background of Medea and Jason gradually throughout the hour-long piece, the tragic climax is rushed as the script flies through the fate of Eriopis and Polyxenos at top speed, leaving no sense of the weight of the tragedy or for the horror of the situation to sink in. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to assume that all of the target audience will know the ending of the Medea legend; yet this could have been handled more deftly as the current script disables the otherwise well-paced show.
Overall, this is a confident and entertaining performance that appeals to a range of ages, creating a modern take on this most shocking of ancient tales.
My Mother Medea is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until November 26.
Photo: Helen Murray