Any production of Medea must be concerned with the uncomfortable fact that its heroine is not human. To be sure, the lady has murderously human emotions, just like you and me (as they say). But Euripides’ Medea, granddaughter of the Sun, mythic sorceress who gave up a world for love of feckless Jason, must not be dragged down to the level of “the normal.” She might kill you, otherwise.
It’s a swift play, lasting about 90 minutes, and the action takes place between morning and late night. As that supreme dramaturge Jan Kott pointed out, Medea’s mad deed of murdering her two young children could only be done during darkness.
“Monomania singles Medea out, separates and cuts her off from the real world,” Ms. Kott concludes. “Through her monomania Medea is alone. Heroes of tragedy have to be alone.”
Medea is in exile even before the play begins. Fleeing with Jason and the Golden Fleece to Corinth, she has betrayed her own country of Colchis and murdered her brother. This princess/killer is a stranger in a foreign land, and her dark foreignness adds to her mystery and primal danger.
When she discovers Jason has left her for the younger princess of Corinth, the terrible die is cast. Medea kills the new bride and her father, King Creon, through sorcery-poison and fire. She then butchers her two children-killing the living image of her unfaithful husband. She leaves Jason alive and alone, the better to grieve and suffer, as she does.
At the play’s end, a chariot, sent by the Sun God and drawn by winged dragons, carries Medea off to a mountain where she buries the dead children.
It’s a fantastic story, yes? Even in summary, we’re struck by its lethal “otherness.” This is no ordinary, earthbound play that still speaks to us after 2,400 years. You need a sorcerer or two to create a great production of it. But I regret the new version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw, amounted to folly. It doesn’t help that Ms. Shaw described Medea in an interview as “very normal” (it’s surely the last thing Medea is). Or that Ms. Warner explained why the focus of the production is on the culture of celebrity-of all mundane things.
“Everyone understands what famous coupledom is,” she said of Medea’s marriage to Jason, “and these two are fabulously famous. They are seriously traveled, they are in hiding-they are Bonnie and Clyde.”
And the chorus? “Autograph hunters,” Ms. Warner explained. “The people who stand outside at the Oscars.”
There’s Euripides for you. He was the Joan Rivers of Greek tragedy. Euripides understood what fabulously famous stars really mean to the poor saps on the red carpet. “So who are you wearing?” “A Versace toga with cut-away sandals.” But shall we rechristen the timeless play Medea and Jason: The Real Story Behind The Hollywood Mansion ? Or, She Loved and Lost and Whacked the Kids.
Recalling Ms. Warner’s uncluttered imaginative refinement at work on two of her recent operas-Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Vanished -her frivolous celeb-culture approach is the more bewildering. You can do anything in theater, of course, and people often do. The last Medea I saw was the icy, more traditional 1994 production with Diana Rigg that became known as “The Mayfair Medea .” Ms. Rigg was so Mayfair posh, her tragic Medea appeared to be throwing a temper tantrum in Harrods Food Hall. On the other hand, H.M. Koutoukas’ Medea in the Laundromat , an early Off Broadway legend, famously took place in a real laundromat. Came the big moment, Medea threw her darling babies into the washing machine. Turn to spin dry and away we go. The scholarly Mr. Koutoukas’ emphasis was clearly on the domestic.
So is Ms. Warner’s. Her new production appears to be set in Malibu. “The Malibu Medea ” takes place around a square pool set in a concrete courtyard surrounded by Lucite. It’s a home for celebrities with no taste. A Lucite wall with doors also runs along the back wall-intended to suggest a transparent glass house, perhaps (set designer, Tom Pye). But plastic is a shallow material for mythic Medea, and the courtyard also doubles as a kind of children’s playpen. Little toys and stuffed animals are scattered everywhere, creating an inappropriate dinkiness, like garden gnomes in the ‘burbs.
It turns out Ms. Shaw’s Medea likes to play with toys. But we hear her before we see her-ranting and smashing crockery like a spoilt hysteric whose husband has just run off with a trophy wife. This is a knowing Medea. As the troubled heroine has a fit offstage, the worried Nurse-or nanny-dashes out of the house with a bottle of pills and the kitchen knives. Best to be on the safe side.
Ms. Shaw has always been one of my favorite actresses, and she still shall be. Her solo The Wasteland was a marvel of acting; her Hedda Gabler, too (both were also directed by Deborah Warner). She’s a gloriously unpredictable actress. Her innate riskiness reminds us of Vanessa Redgrave in a wayward mood, when anything can happen and greatness or disaster hover perilously in the balance. Her sense of comedy is second only to Maggie Smith’s. (Her golf swing as Jean Brodie-of all people-in the National Theatre’s revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a sight for sore eyes). But her slinky grand entrance as a Medea grieving for her life in the dark sunglasses of a hung-over movie star that encouraged welcoming laughter was about as appropriate as greeting a dying Lear dancing onstage.
Ms. Shaw silenced the laughter this time, but not later. The distressed “celebrity” before us, hiding behind dark glasses and dressed in a cardigan and cotton frock, is a Medea made knowable and ultimately suburban. The Chorus-or public-is dressed no different than her, in their everyday clothes. Beneath the pseudo-glamorous surface, the message is: Medea is really “one of us.”
Her extraordinary alien fury and force have been reduced to the smaller, earthbound tale of tabloid gruesomeness and a woman wronged. But Medea isn’t about insane jealousy and betrayal alone. (Least of all it is about the price of fame.) In her powerlessness, the whole of life has betrayed her, and life itself is made rotten and meaningless.
It scarcely needs to be said that Medea isn’t funny. She’s witty, which is different. Ms. Shaw has wit in abundance, but the onstage children’s playpen proved too tempting for her. Time and again, she milked easy laughs from the gallery with toys -here brandishing one of the children’s toy guns, there fooling around in a wizard’s hat, then a little turn with joke spectacles, another with a choo-choo train, some business with a children’s stethoscope, and so on. Had a Groucho mask been available, I’ve little doubt she would have worn it. But even as a kind of fractured Medea madness, the toys and stuff are showy and immature. Who’s the tragic heroine? Who’s the child?
The histrionic, Grand Guignol production is almost never still. Passion can speak quietly, like rage, and Ms. Shaw moved me only on the measured, wonderful line, “My lovely life is lost.” But almost everyone rants and shouts throughout; all sense of poetic lyricism is out the Lucite window. The modern translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael could seem awfully literal. “No wonder you’re upset,” the King of Athens says to Medea, as if he’s popped in for a gossip and a nice cup of tea.
Attempting to reverse the iconography of traditional productions, even odder choices have been made. The raging Jason (Jonathan Cake at the top of his voice) speaks in a flat downmarket London accent. He’s a prince, not a prole. Worse, he’s a dated idea of a sexy hunk-a “heartthrob”-who later swaps his jeans for a white and gold top coat, as if auditioning for A Chorus Line . Why Ms. Shaw strips before us into the white robe of an innocent initiate is a mystery. Medea’s black bikini underwear makes brave men blush. Why she appears to be pouring gasoline over herself at one fevered point is another puzzlement. The tableau of her drenched in a bucket of blood with one bloody child draped over her shoulder and the other tucked under her arm is straight out of house of horrors, with thunderous sound effects to match.
“You know my motto,” said the Charles Ludlam Medea. “All or nothing!”
Yet Ms. Warner is an early disciple of Peter Brook, whose motto is “less is more.” Mr. Brook used a pool sparingly in his 1987 masterpiece, Mahabharata , which modestly symbolized a river. Armies at war drowned in it and unseen babies, too. But the pool that’s center-stage in Medea is a shallow effect, I’m afraid, and a fair amount of the action takes place sloshing about in it. On the other hand, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is staged entirely in water. Aquatic Greek drama is now the fashion. There’s only one place to go- under water.
Let’s leave this surprisingly disappointing Medea at that. The formidable test for any modern interpretation is to discover the awe of the original and re-imagine the chariot drawn to the sky by winged dragons. The farewell image of the new production has Ms. Shaw’s bloody Medea flicking water from the pool at the wretched Jason. It’s a goading gesture, of course, flirtatious, childish and narcissistic. And perhaps it’s a perfect end for all we’ve just seen. In “The Malibu Medea ,” Medea and Jason get back together, dying together like Bonnie and Clyde.