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Review: Medea @ Gate Theatre

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

What exactly is tragic about Greek Tragedy? In among all the violence, murder, bloodshed, and death, it is sometimes all too easy to lose sight of any genuine, heart-breaking sadness. It is not so in Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Medea, which has travelled from Sydney, via Warsaw, to arrive at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre.

Instead of leaving the audience on the streets of Corinth like Euripides, Mulvany and Sarks open the door to Medea’s house and allow them into the 21st-century bedroom of her two sons. It is here that the uninterrupted hour of action takes place and, although the change sacrifices the traditional drama, it spotlights the real tragedy in Euripides’ original: the death of two innocent, young boys. Bobby Smalldridge and Keir Edkins-O’Brien – both children – play Jasper and Leon, the two sons of Medea and Jason. Locked in their room while Mum and Dad sort out some “marriage stuff” downstairs, they play, they fight, and they chat aimlessly to pass the time – in short, they behave just as any bored kids would.

Both, it must be said, are utterly convincing; Smalldridge is every bit the curious, somewhat precocious under-10 and Edkins-O’Brien is equally impressive as his slightly sulkier older brother. Emma Beattie plays the eponymous wife of Jason, appearing occasionally to check on the two boys and competently capturing that stressed middle-class Mum look.

Mulvany and Sarks’ writing needs to be delicate. In among the word games and Nerf-gun fights, they drop just enough references to events outside for the piece to maintain its tension. Mentions of “Dad’s friend” and Mum being “weird”, spoken with naïve innocence by Smalldridge and Edkins-O’Brien, resound like gunshots among their idle chatter. Occasionally, such moments seem contrived but, for the most part, Mulvany and Sarks’ writing is laudable subtle – although one wonders how an audience member unfamiliar with Euripides would cope.

It is actually remarkable how much thematic ground Mulvany and Sarks’ manage to cover with so little explicit dialogue. Issues of gender, class and xenophobia are never discussed but are still undeniably present, lurking among the spaceship duvets and plastic dinosaurs.

Emma Jane Cook’s hyper-realistic set, strewn with colouring pens, stuffed animals and Lego, is both a welcome nostalgia trip for anyone under the age of 30 and the perfect arena for the two boys’ escapades. A fish tank bubbles quietly in the corner, a toy chest lies emptied against the wall and, when the lights are turned off, luminous stars glow softly behind their bedsteads. This is a place of innocence, a sanctuary from the bloody drama the audience knows is taking place behind their bedroom’s firmly locked door. When the chaos outside finally seeps in with a bedtime drink and a kiss goodnight, it is undeniably arresting.

2015 is the year for radical Greek revivals. Against Robert Icke’s Oresteia at the Almeida or Ivo van Hoe’s Antigone at the Barbican, Sarks’ Medea at the Gate Theatre might seem slightly tame. In reality, though, it is just as imaginative. It cuts to the core of the genre with wit and ingenuity, finding the tragic in Greek Tragedy without screams and gore but with innocence and laughter.

4/5

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