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Review: Medea’s incomprehensible crime

The new production at the Gate makes Medea’s children more than mere victims

By Anna Mulligan

Like the play itself, the set for Oonagh Murphy’s Medea walks the line between the mundane and the mythic. The children have a teddy bear named Hercules, and the play takes place in a bedroom whose sloping sides, rising inwards, give the impression of an attic or a crawl space. At the apex is a kind of hovering wooden grid, as if the technicolour bedroom is not an attic but a dungeon, an oubliette, where Medea’s two children have been forgotten. 

This might be a reference to the eyes of the gods, watching as they might in Euripides’ play, from a safe distance. It’s hard to know; the play draws on its myths indirectly in ambiguous flashes of memory, as when Medea’s children (played on this particular night by Oscar Butler and Jude Lynch) loosely re-tell the contours of their father Jason’s adventures, passing the time in their locked bedroom.

Murphy’s new version of Medea is effectively a retelling of the old story from the children’s point of view. While we wait in the locked room for the play’s titular character, the boys summarise, speculate about and replay the story of their parents. At one point, while fighting, the younger brother uses magic to escape the boundary of “his side of the room” and play keep-away with the golden fleece, until the elder makes a false promise to take it back, his fingers crossed. Medea and Jason’s magic and betrayal come up in their spat, but not in the children’s telling of the parental love story, which one boy says was a “win-win” – Jason got the fleece, Medea got to leave home, they both found love. No harm, no foul.

The two young actors shine from the beginning of our time with them, when they act out a series of death games. First they try to play dead, quietly, for as long as possible, and then they take turns choosing their own death – shot by a nerf gun, mauled by a bear, hit by an arrow and then dead of a seizure. The games are edgily acted, comic and unnerving without being heavy-handed in their foreshadowing of the deaths that the audience knows are coming anyway. 

There were times in this early section when I thought I was waiting for Medea, as the titular character and one who generally dominates any story she populates, but the strength of the script is that I was not. When Medea did arrive, there were times when I felt she was a distraction from the main event of the brothers’ story, which is a testament to the reframing achieved by Mulvaney and Sarks. The play returns in the meandering of the children’s reflections towards death, and whether dead things count; towards being small, and whether small people count.

The adults in Medea are playing games with the children, but the play itself takes them seriously on their own terms – their skills, their questions, the deaths they choose for themselves, which are for laughs. Over and again the boys run full tilt into the locked door, rattling the handle, showing us that they are not by choice narrative footnotes.

Not long before the climax of the plot, they have a contemplative conversation about the meaningfulness of being small – as small as specks, compared to the glow-in-the-dark stars papering their ceiling – but when they have drunk Medea’s poison, as instructed, she won’t let them lie back down in that corner, and die looking at the stars.

It’s at this point that Eileen Walsh’s character of Medea breaks through her lyrical and sentimental register into a rage until they stand up and allow themselves to be dressed and staged by her, so that they die in her arms.

Medea’s character is a difficult needle to thread; the play struggles with her. We meet her dressed for distress in her pyjamas, dishevelled, telegraphing her tortured love for her children, her bitterness with Jason, her despair at the prospect of returning home to her father. None of it rings true: her singsong declarations of eternal love for them do not feel authentic, but neither do her moments of stagey bitterness and resolve in planning the death of Jason’s new love seem any truer at their core. Her moment of rage when the children resist her cajoling is a moment of clarity – but what does it mean? The crime no one can make sense of is still the crime no one can make sense of.

Walsh’s Medea tries on different motives, but does not commit. Is she turning to murder to avoid returning to Colchis? Is she destroying the thing – the people – that she thinks Jason wants and cares for the most? Is she attacking the evidence of her life with Jason, now destroyed? Is she bored? She stages the crime for Jason by taking the children from their contemplation in the dark among the stars to a beam of light from the finally open door, locked for so much of the action. She’s not hiding them; they are to be displayed. In this way, the play’s conclusion is intentionally inconclusive; neither she nor the audience get to see the look on Jason’s face when he understands whatever it is she wants him to understand.

Jason’s absence is deeply felt in the bedroom, where his golden fleece – now a purloined jumper that still smells of him, kept in a drawer – is lovingly cradled.
In Jason’s absence, the children are not needed outside the bedroom; Medea visits them to update them on their status in the acrimonious separation. This is the thematic heart of the new Medea; the children, forgotten, are trapped by the weight of our captivation with heroes and demigods like Jason and Medea, whose children are pawns and cannot escape.

The contemporary framing – the bickering of the shared bedroom, the word games to pass the time, the exaggerated jokes shared between children and overtired parents – vividly communicates this. The younger son wets himself, and hides under the covers in distress. The two young performers drink from time to time from the same small cup of water – the practical concerns of a seventy-five minute performance without intermission ground us again in the flesh-and-blood existence of these children, sidelined from the higher-order drama taking place on the other side of the locked door.

As Medea takes on an increasingly central role, planning and executing the crimes she is famous for, the mysterious core of her actions presents challenges for Medea. Overall, its success is in its effort to focus, not on Medea with her godlike powers and passions, but on the mundane powerlessness of childhood, when parents and narrative constrain you, and tell you what you mean. The infamy of the plot allows Mulvaney and Sarks to play loosely with myth and magic, so that we can take an interest in children who are not heroic, but are more than mere victims.