Tragedy falls flat

13 October 2007

Medea is apparently ‘the most controversial woman in Greek Tragedy’, and this year’s Cambridge Greek Play certainly doesn’t shy away from difficulty. Not only does the eponymous protagonist kill her husband’s lover, his future father-in-law and her own children, she also exits in a heavenly chariot. And the text is performed in the original Greek.

However, Medea’s name itself means ‘virility’, and – despite covering the stage in turf – the majority of this production fails to bloom. After the huge success of 2004’s Oedipus, director Annie Castledine’s return to the Arts Theatre is seldom worth the hype.

The text itself is beautifully spoken, and the use of Ancient Greek entirely justified by the performances of the principle actors. Marta Zlatic in the title role is particularly worthy of note, and is obviously accustomed to giving meaning to languages other than English. The interactions between ‘Medea’, ‘Jason’ and ‘Creon’ are so much enhanced by the rhythm, variety of sound and range of pitch required to speak this supposedly ‘dead’ language that it is difficult to imagine the scenes in translation. Moreover, the chemistry between Zlatic and Misha Verkerk (‘Jason’) makes Euripides’ poetry entirely believable (unlike – unfortunately – the surtitles, the brevity of which frequently resulted in confusion, distraction and even laughter). Equally, other less experienced members of the cast struggle to include the audience in any emotional response, leaving us as distanced as ‘Medea’ herself.

The main selling point, aside from the Greek, is the relocation of the action to 1912. The parallels between this era and that of 431 BC are supposedly all important, but a gaggle of suffragettes acting as chorus entirely misses the point. Euripides’ chorus is made up of the women of Corinth, who are insiders, conformists, shocked by ‘Medea’ – not a troupe of disillusioned harridans. In general, such an intrinsic element of a Greek Tragedy failed to elicit any response: hackneyed choreography and obviously uncomfortable actors didn’t help.

The Greek Play is a Cambridge institution dating back to 1882, but Medea failed to entirely justify its continuation. A significant number of the cast have already graduated, or are professional actors, leaving questions of purpose hanging – a little like ‘Medea’ herself. For anyone interested in Greek Tragedy, be it theoretically or with a view to performance, this is certainly worth a look – just don’t expect catharsis.