Ireland's Fiona Shaw is a great 'Medea'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 8, 2003 at 11:35 AM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- An updated production of Euripides' "Medea" that could have been inspired by a tabloid headline, "Mom Kills Two Kids: Revenge for Dad's Infidelity" has brought one of Ireland's most talented actresses, Fiona Shaw, to Broadway for one of the great performances of the current theater season.

This import from Dublin's Abbey Theater, now in a limited run of 84 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, has a cast costumed in contemporary clothing and a new colloquial translation from the original Greek by author-playwright Kenneth McLeish and novelist Frederic Raphael.

But its chief contribution is in creating a "Medea" for our time -- a neurotic mother who would feel at home on a TV tell-all show rather than a grandly dramatic sorceress in the tradition of Judith Anderson and Diana Rigg, two of the 20th century's greatest Medeas.

This ingenious stretching of a classic text into a commentary on the public airing of painful losses of self-respect, pride, and dignity so common today is made possible by one of the classic Greek theater's cleverest inventions -- the chorus of faceless commonfolk who listen to and comment on the confessions of their betters in the heroic roles.

The successful integration of ancient and modern viewpoints can be credited to Deborah Warner, an English director whose numerous credits include prize-winning productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Beckett plays as well as many operas. Her production of "Medea" with Fiona Shaw ran in London in 2000, has just completed a tour of North America, and has already sold out an upcoming run in Paris.

"Medea" was first performed in Athens in 431 B.C. It deals with a mythical princess of Colchis who betrays her country by helping Jason, leader of the Argonauts, obtain the golden fleece from her father, King Aeetes. As the play begins, Jason has abandoned Medea and their two sons to marry the young daughter of King Creon of Corinth who has given Jason and Medea sanctuary.

Medea takes her revenge on Jason and Greece, which she feels have treated her unjustly, by slaying her sons and causing the deaths of the Corinthian princess and her father by sending a wedding gift of a poisoned robe and diadem. She is allowed to get away with the murders unpunished in a chariot supplied by her grandfather, the sun god, thus becoming a demigod or perhaps a demon.

In portraying this half-mad murderess, Shaw avoids the overly dramatic approach of Anderson and the coolly calculating intellectual approach of Rigg, the aristocrat to her fingertips. She comes across as an ordinary woman whose nerves have been rubbed raw by events that have gotten out of her control and whose anger and pain are steadily mounting to a pitch that causes a breakdown of colossal dimensions.

Demonic half-grins flicker across Shaw's expressive face as the voices plans to destroy everyone who is close to Jason, leaving him as bereft as she is. This is a woman who is taking bizarre pleasure in formulating her monstrous plot, and the audience is as mesmerized by her performance as a cobra is by flute music. The very energy of Shaw's Medea is enough to leave her viewers exhausted as the final curtain falls.

Jonathan Cake is a handsome and muscular Jason who seems genuinely persuaded that by marrying into the ruling house of Corinth he will be giving his sons by Medea a chance to grow up with all the perks of royalty. Medea's inability to recognize that he is sacrificing their relationship for the greater good is beyond his male comprehension.

The role of the nurse, taken by Sihbhan McCarthy, seems played down in this production, whereas the role of tutor takes on more personality than usual in the hands of Robin Laing. The chorus that plays such an integral role in the unfolding events is made up of Kirsten Campbell, Joyce Henderson, Rachel Isaac, Pauline Lynch, and Susan Salmon.

Set designer Tom Pye's courtyard strewn with the toys of Medea's sons and centered by a pool in which she can wash the boys' blood from her garments is effective but lacking specificity as to era or style. Jacqueline Durran is credited with the costumes and Michael Gunning has provided lighting that adds to the overall sense of tragic doom so masterfully created by Euripides nearly 2,500 years ago.

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