Saturday, July 08, 2000

REVIEW: Medea (Abbey, Dublin)

Who wouldn't admire the industrial grade chutzpah of a show that demonstrates hubris through the burning of teddy bears? When Fiona Shaw's Medea takes a Zippo to the first little furry toy, we know that no act, even the murder of her two infant sons, will be too extreme for this woman.

Deborah Warner's version at the Abbey of Euripides's tale of jealousy and revenge run wild constantly takes this kind of step into the dark, and does so with a daredevil relish for everything that stands a good chance of not coming off, of having its meanings career completely out of control.

Warner's production moves naturalistically one moment, sidesteps into unaccompanied sean-nos singing the next, then heads off into a little sacrificial teddy-bear burning before climaxing with a couple of buckets of blood hitting a Perspex wall.

It is frequently Fiona Shaw's Medea that holds all this soaring recklessness together, that offers every risk the production takes a safe landing. Her tightly focused performance - which finally lends some credible continuity between Medea and the murderer she becomes - allows things to lean sometimes towards folksy, sometimes strict, sometimes passionate, sometimes ritualistic,
without ever toppling over.

Shaw has the control and the strength to bring the play continually into focus. Whether with naturalistic snuffles and quips or a stiff, tragic formality, she slowly beats out the shape of her character until there is enough space to say and do anything, from primal roaring to delivering anachronistic jibes straight out of nowhere. To Jason's grief-striken demand to kiss the lips of his dead sons she answers with a shockingly coquettish "Request denied".

Patrick O'Kane, as Jason, the husband Medea must torment, underlines the Brandoish traits of his performance in Murphy's The House by here donning the ceremonial vest of Marlon. There is, all the same, something missing in his portrayal, and he has a tendency to posture in a way that always seems overwrought next to Shaw's brilliant, easeful, flexible performance.

Euripides's drama is missing its original ending here but has gained so much in this translation, by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, that it would be churlish to quibble. The further translation of elements of the chorus into Irish is not really explained by anything other than the production's Dublin location. But the amendments do not, however curious, significantly deflect the impact of the show.

Tom Pye's set, with a Perspex wall upstage and a paddling pool down, slices up the action into three vivid dimensions. His plastic wall's pristine shine always seems to yearn for a little desecration - and when Jvan Morandi's horrifying barrages of tempestuous lighting and Mel Mercier wall-of-noise soundscapes finally climax, it certainly gets it. As do the poor teddies.

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