DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Medea Maria – Theatre Royal, York

Director/Designer: Alexander Kaniewski

Composer: Helen Madden

Musical Director: Robert Fisher

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Medea Maria is an ambitious new work which was received enthusiastically on its single performance at the York Literature Festival, but which it is difficult to imagine having wide currency on the theatre/opera stage. Initially, the stylised gestures and poses and very slow repetitive movements, with the odd outburst of furiously angry narrative, seem merely pretentious, but, as the evening progresses, Alexander Kaniewski’s approach justifies itself as to its intentions, even if it is only sporadically involving. The one consistent pleasure is Helen Madden’s music.

The form is partly dictated by Euripides’ play Medea. Both works begin with a narrative by Medea’s Nurse. However, in Medea Maria, this becomes more like a howl of fury. The character of the Nurse is one of the problems of the production: as she lurks on the fringe like the villain in a Victorian Shakespeare production, it is difficult to work out whether the humour is intentional – she seems at times like a character from a Satyr Play and the York audience laughed appreciatively. Whatever Kaniewski’s intention, Bronte Hobson plays it to the hilt. 

Maria Callas played Medea many times in Cherubini’s opera and Kaniewski has lighted on the similarity between Medea and Maria. Each escaped from an unhappy marriage into a loving relationship (with Jason and Aristotle Onassis) which foundered when her lover married someone more socially acceptable: the Princess of Corinth or Jacqueline Kennedy. At this point, the stories diverge: Callas didn’t poison Jackie Onassis!

The story of Medea is told mostly through mime, accompanied by Robert Fisher’s talented and committed seven-piece band and a fine chorus of three, with Catherine Fahy ratcheting up the tension with some alarming high notes. Helen Madden switches styles with great skill: much of the choral music has hints of plainsong, the instrumental music (nice writing for clarinet and trombone) slides easily into minimalist variations and motor rhythms, briefly throw in a touch of boogie and fall into something much freer and more mysterious to accompany dramatic monologues.

For the most part, the Maria Callas element consists of two interview scenes in which she is asked bland questions about her professional life and impertinent ones about her private life. Laura Castle deals with them with aplomb and projects a dangerous dignity as Medea before igniting into a final scene of furious emotion.

Mood and atmosphere are crucial to this unclassifiable work and characters tend to operate on one note. Sam Hird’s Jason is the epitome of smug, Rebecca Sheard’s Princess hides behind a Jackie Kennedy fixed smile which, in one of the most effective dramatic moments, widens slowly into a silent scream as the poison burns her. Ethan Mitchell and Bradlee Crane are intelligently dutiful as Medea’s children.

Tours to East Riding Theatre, Beverley, on March 26 and 27 | Image: Contributed

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