Hammersmith is nowhere near Ancient or Modern Athens but that is where you have to go to see one of the finest productions of Greek tragedy. Director Anastasia Revi has captured all the essential elements of Athenian drama in her recreation of Medea, a production that takes some liberties with the text but remains fundamentally faithful to Euripides’s play.
Ancient tragedy contained music, singing and dancing in addition to the script or libretto, if you will. Except for the few scripts that have been miraculously saved, we know precious little of how the plays were in fact produced and why Athenians went to the theatre in the pre-dawn hours by the tens of thousands.
Revi provides her personal view and it is convincing and brilliant. Her Medea is a gypsy who married a Greek. A gypsy is, of course, a foreigner, an outsider as was Euripides’s Medea who came from the eastern shore of the Black Sea (think of Sochi) when she fell in love with Jason who just stole the Golden Fleece.
Revi’s production opens with a wedding. A young man is pawing his bride, the bridesmaids are having fun and an older man is enjoying the event as well. Above them all is a woman dressed in black with her back turned to the party. We hear melodious and pleasant Mediterranean music.
None of this is in the play but it fits completely as a prologue. Then the Nurse (Helen Bang) speaks the first lines of Euripides’s play in the excellent translation of Ian Johnson. We quickly learn that the groom of the prologue is Jason (Tobias Deacon) getting married to Glauce (Denise Moreno). The other man is her father King Creon (George Siena).
Jason is already married to Medea and they have two sons. His marriage to a foreigner is not valid and he is marrying the daughter of the king for obvious reasons. Medea is quite angry, to use an understatement.
Glauce does not appear in Euripides play but Revi adds her without disturbing the integrity of the play. She appears again in her wedding veil when the Messenger is describing her hideous death. She acts out the description of her death in a brilliant coup de théâtre by Revi.
Revi tightens up the play by doing away with the Tutor and giving some of his lines to the Nurse and having the children appear only imaginatively. They are made quite real by Medea walking on stage with their shoes strung around her neck after she murdered them. Another brilliant directorial touch.
Because of the long choral passages and speeches, Greek drama can easily descend into static and often boring recitatives. Revi will have none of that. The play is choreographed from simple body movements of the Chorus of three young women, to more complex dances. When Jason visits Medea, the scene becomes one of sexual passion and erotic dancing using two folding tables as props. It explains what brought the Greek and the gypsy together.
Medea becomes almost raving mad as she plots the death of Glauce and the murder of her children. As she crouched on the floor filled with grief for her children, we hear a gorgeous obbligato sung in Modern Greek. One can barely make it out but it is a nanourisma, a lullaby that a mother would sing to her children when putting them to bed.
Kaminsky plays a brilliant Medea. She is not a young woman in contrast well with Glauce, her replacement who is young and pretty. This Medea is passionate, cunning, angry and full of hatred. She speaks with an accent that I can only describe as Mediterranean but she slides out of it during her more dramatic moments. We are so enthralled with what she is doing, we hardly notice it.
Deacon is a playboy Jason. He has to do what he has to do but he will never forget Medea and his children, he tells us. He does have a very dramatic scene when he finds out their fate and does a fine job in Revi’s view of the character.
George Siena plays Creon, the Messenger and Aegeus and does a very good job. Helen Bang is equally good as the Nurse.
The Chorus (Denise Munro, Laura Morgan and Charlotte Gallagher) comes in for special praise both for the performances of the three women and the conception of Revi. They provide movement and poetry and, as I said, solve one of the major issues of producing Greek drama.
The music and musicians deserve special mention and praise. The music of Daemonia Nymphe (Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou) forms an essential part of the production. We are not talking about a few dissonant chords at lengthy intervals but music that is an essential part of the production.
If you have solved the delivery of text, the choral and musical aspects of a Greek tragedy, you have gone a long way into grasping what those early risers may have seen on the foothills of the Acropolis in 431 B.C.