Medea, Sex & God, The Odd Couple (female version)
JOYCE MCMILLAN on MEDEA at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, SEX & GOD at the Platform, Easterhouse, and THE ODD COUPLE at Perth Theatre, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 4.10.12
Medea 5 stars *****
Sex & God 4 stars ****
The Odd Couple 3 stars ***
THERE’S ALMOST a sense of shock, as we file in to take our seats for the Citizens’ new staging of Medea, co-produced by Headlong and Watford Palace Theatre. The play is ancient, first seen in Athens in 431 BC; but the set that confronts us is absolutely contemporary, a huge, slightly overcoloured photographic image of a modern suburban street somewhere in the Home Counties, all red brick and carriage lamps.
It is a hugely risky project, to take a tragedy of such antiquity and mythical force, and transfer it to the landscape of Alan Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh. Yet in this brave and brilliant new version of the play, writer and director Mike Bartlett seizes his chance, wrestles mightily with it, and makes it work; and if the whole show sometimes seems to be walking a high-wire between breathtaking genius and complete absurdity, the sense of danger only makes the spectacle more exciting, and Rachael Stirling’s central performance as Medea more thrilling to watch.
The story of Medea is, after all, a timeless one; the tragedy of a brilliant and sensual woman betrayed by her adored husband Jason, and traded in for a younger model – less interesting, less intense, less intelligent, but in Bartlett’s words “just nicer”. In an autumn of Scottish theatre suddenly dominated by women’s stories and all-female companies, the Medea cast features five men, and only three women. Yet the play remains the quintessential female narrative, utterly dominated by a clever, witty, and powerful woman protagonist; and the challenge, in updating it, is to bring it back home to our time, without shrinking its scale, or reducing it to the banal.
As Ruari Murchison’s ultra-vivid set makes clear, Bartlett’s approach to that challenge is to meet it head on; not by muting the cultural resonances of the suburban setting, but by playing up to them, exaggerating them, and then suddenly skewing them towards tragedy. The result is a version of Medea that at times veers dangerously and deliberately towards suburban sit-com, as Medea’s two female friends snipe bitchily at each other in the gleaming red-tiled kitchen, and Medea herself – after she comes storming downstairs in a rage of blazing red hair, chalk-white face and scruffy t-shirt – displays a penchant for sarcastic feminist jokes, and for sending herself up rotten.
It’s a measure of the force of Rachael Stirling’s performance, though, that she is able to silence the audience’s laughter in a second, as the set of her face, the glint of her eyes, the edge in her voice, makes us know once again the cosmic depth of her rage and despair, and the violent catastrophe it threatens. Outside in the street, an almost-silent suburban bricklayer – perhaps the strangest Chorus ever seen in an ancient tragedy – turns directly to Medea just once, and utters the single word, “don’t”. But she does; and in that terrifying moment, she acts for all the women in human history who have had to swallow their grief and rage, and accept with “dignity” the cruel force of nature that robs them of the love of their men, long before they themselves are ready to die.
There’s plenty of grief and rage, too, in Linda McLean’s one-hour theatrical poem Sex & God, the latest touring production from Nicholas Bone’s Magnetic North company; although here, the atmosphere is one of tentative and hidden rebellion, rather than outright fury. The society conjured up here is Scotland, over the last century; and although no obvious narrative links the four women on stage, both their clothes, and the occasional glancing interaction between them, mark them out as four generations of the same family, fighting their way through the experience of womanhood from Edwardian times to the present day. The impact of McLean’s text is more poetic than dramatic; but the range of the images she creates, and the sympathetic imagination that drives her writing, is never less than moving, and the show features four intense and heartfelt performances from a finely-tuned quartet of actors – Ashley Smith, Lesley Hart, Louise Ludgate and Natalie Wallace.
As for the female version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, playing at Perth in a rollicking production by Rachel O’Riordan – well, it’s a good night out in every way, full of excellent jokes, witty 1980’s design, and some richly enjoyable performances from a fine company of six women and two men. This female version of the play was written by Simon himself in 1985, twenty years on from the original smash-hit comedy about a slobbish sports writer and his obsessive, hypochondriac friend, setting up house together after their respective divorces; and the truth is that it just isn’t quite as funny as the male version. Even in the year 2012, a woman fussing around with a duster is less surprising than a bloke doing the same thing; and Rachel O’Riordan’s production perhaps makes the mistake of expecting Cara Kelly’s obsessive-compulsive Florence to be the main focus of the comedy, rather than Abigail McGibbon’s slobbish Olive, a woman quite happy to live in a pigsty, so long as she can have peace.
Despite the odd line that falls surprisingly flat, though, this remains an entertaining show, with a fine subtext about the disruption of gender stereotypes, and the sheer comedy of human beings trying to live together; and it’s great to hear the fine swing and snap of some really witty female conversation, as Olive’s group of six friends gather together on a Friday night, to play not poker, but a never-ending game of Trivial Pursuit.
Medea at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and The Odd Couple at Perth Theatre, both until 13 October. Sex & God at New Galloway, Musselburgh and Dunkeld this weekend, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-13 October, and on tour until 26 October.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
The risks are obvious; the post-feminist 21st-century setting might have turned this modern Medea into a horror-movie joke, or a figure of fun. But instead, Rachael Stirling gives a performance of such authority and brilliance, in Mike Bartlett’s new version of Medea of the Citizens’, that the audience is never allowed for more than moment to forget the terrfiying depth of her rage, or the horror of which she may be capable. It’s thrilling, it’s frightening, its truthfulness is both agonising and exhilarating; and it’s a performance that has to be seen, during Medea’s short run in Glasgow.