In his production of Medea, Simon Stone brings his contemporary approach to classic Greek tragedy, and strips it of much of its power, says Robert Reid
It’s been at least a decade since I last saw a work by Simon Stone. I was no fan then and I still remain unconvinced. Stone’s Medea has been created for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam and is his fifth production with the company, which is no stranger to the Adelaide Festival. It presented Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies here in 2014 and Kings of War in 2018. This production drains most of what is interesting out of the tragedy, leaving a shallow and ill-conceived shell.
With Medea, Stone is doing the same gimmick he used to such strong effect years ago with The Wild Duck: he takes great literary works and turns them into middle-class soap operas with a postdramatic aesthetic. It works well enough when he’s adapting Ibsen or Chekhov, as their plays were the middle-class soap operas of their time, and his eye for the tragedies of the contemporary middle class make for modernisations that strip out the unfamiliarity of long-past societies and translate them into familiar contemporary family dramas.
With a work like Medea, however, this process strips out its epic quality, reducing it to a well fed-family squabble. For all the blood on stage, it remains curiously bloodless, an intellectual exercise that reveals little of the characters.
The production itself is absolutely gripping, which has everything to do with the performances. Everyone on stage acquits themselves admirably and the performance given by Marieke Heebink as Anna – the contemporary version of Medea – is phenomenal. The subtly of characterisation and depth of emotion she brings to what is a two-dimensional character is nothing short of spell-binding.
Stone takes the dramaturgy of Euripides’ classic and maps it onto a modern day divorce. It also borrows from real-world stories of domestic violence that pathologise women’s rage, specifically drawing on the 1996 filicide of American oncologist Debora Green, who was convicted of poisoning her husband with ricin and murdering two of their children in a house fire. Stone lifts the Green story wholesale, with a modified version of the house fire that concludes it to round out the tragedy. On the surface, the comparison with the classic Medea text is easy to make, but that’s about all it is. Easy and on the surface.
In Stone’s version, Anna, a brilliant doctor, sacrifices her career for the love of a man, Lucas/Jason (Aus Greidanus Jr) only to be betrayed by him when he begins sleeping with Clara/Creusa (Eva Heijnen), the daughter of the hospital director, Christopher/Creon (Bart Slegers). On discovering his infidelity, Anna attempts to poison Lucas, slowly feeding him Ricin until he is hospitalised and her attempted crime is discovered. All this is prologue: as the play begins, Anna has returned from her forced institutionalisation, medicated and apparently cured.
Stone also refers to the 1993 Lorena Bobbitt story in what amounts to little more than a jokey introductory scene. Having been rejected by Christopher in her attempt to return to work, there’s an early scene in which Anna is applying for a job as a bookstore clerk. The bookstore owner, a kind of Aegeus I think, recounts to Anna a story in which a woman cuts off her husband’s penis as he sleeps, apparently because he always leaves the toilet seat up. Obviously cribbed from the Bobbitt story, there are inconsistencies throughout – for instance, the unnamed woman throws the penis out the door of their house, Bobbitt threw her husband’s from the window of a moving car then called 911 to report what had happened. The fact that neither of the real people involved are ever named – even though we all know who is being talked about – decontextualises the story, stripping them of their agency and turning them into tools for a cheap laugh.
The scene draws titters from the audience until the gut-wrenching punchline, when the book store owner reveals that the husband had been regularly raping the wife for years. Leaving the toilet seat up and pissing all over the bathroom floor was the final straw that finally tipped her over the edge into violence. Why not simply honour the real story here, without creating a tired and patriarchal trope of women frustrated by the toilet habits of men? It would still foreshadow the violence we all know is to come. Not funny enough, I guess.
I wonder about the ethics of appropriating these real-world tragedies merely to lend contemporary credence to an ancient Greek tragedy. I wonder how the surviving families of these people would feel about these worst moments of their lives being used as grist for Stone’s artistic mill. I wonder about how casually he treats people, taking from their realities to make his art.
It’s not the only thing that is problematic about the production. Stone’s Medea is a conflicting and contradictory work. There’s a veneer of feminism lacquered over an adaptation that, on closer inspection, reinforces patriarchal tropes. In an atmosphere charged by the accusations of rape, sexual assault and harassment in the nation’s capital – particularly in this precise moment, when a privileged white man at the centre of accusations seems able to escape any interrogation of his actions by casting his now deceased accuser as untrustworthy and mentally ill – maybe it’s just unlucky timing. That’s doubtful, though: these things are always happening. If it hadn’t been a politician this time, surely it would have been another celebrated footballer or a revered actor.
Stone’s Medea, Anna, was once a promising medical researcher, a brilliant scientist and head of a medical laboratory who fell in love with the young lab assistant for whom she eventually sacrifices her career. When we meet her in the production she is already the “madwoman”. This madness is brought on by his betrayal of her with Clara, the other, younger, woman. Now, released back into the world, medicated and hoping to resume her life, Anna is attempting a rapprochement with Lucas. She wants to return to her old work at the clinic, she wants to see her children again, to put their family back together again as if this was ever possible.
From the outset, Anna is on edge. She drinks, even though she knows the alcohol is contraindicated by the medication she is taking. Everyone acts as if walking on egg shells around her, treating her as the fragile, dangerous, “crazy bitch”. Lucas wants her to sign divorce papers: he already has sole custody of the children and wants to move on with his life with Clara. He’s also doing his best to keep the advanced state of his relationship with Clara from Anna, worried that it will upset her, not wanting to set her off, afraid of what she might do.
In presenting Anna as a deranged attempted murderer before the play even begins, Stone’s telling sublimates Medea’s rage into simple jealousy. She asks often, aggrieved and confused, why Lucas stopped sleeping with her, begging pathetically to know if it was her body that disgusted him. He denies this but puts the onus back onto her, claiming that she turned sex into a chore. She howls, grief-stricken, that she was only trying to connect with her husband. The closest she comes to calling him out for what he really is appears much later into the argument, when it is finally revealed she was the one rewriting his mediocre work, correcting his errors, trying to keep him from being embarrassed by how poor a scientist he is.
Yet, once he had got what he wanted, he moved onto to Clara, only five years old when he’d begun his relationship with Anna – a distinct age discrepancy. Ultimately, this new relationship has put him in a better position to keep climbing the ladder within the clinic. This all comes far too late; by this stage Anna has been painted as an unreliable narrator, driven by jealousy and an unhinged fantasy of winning her family back from her usurper.
Stone lifts the Creusa substitute out from the original – giving Clara a more rounded life of her own on stage than Euripides gives Creusa – but the few times she and Anna talk they are only ever talking about Lucas, or the two boys, or her father. Clara is still little more than a functionary of the story, the complication that stands in the way of Anna and Lucas reuniting. This is what I mean about a veneer of feminism and the conflicted nature of this work. Medea is a story of a powerful woman who owns her rage and consciously hones it into a deadly weapon to destroy her cheating, gas-lighting husband, and yet Stone’s adaptation can’t even pass the Bechdel test.
Anna has no agency: she not only acts out of madness, she seems barely aware of her actions. She recounts her murders in a daze, leaving a message on Lucas’s voice mail. Distracted and pleading, she’s literally phoning it in. Her crime isn’t premeditated: it’s a crime of passion, stereotypical of “emotional women”. Euripdes’ Medea knows exactly what she’s doing when she murders Creusa and the two boys, and she doesn’t die, to pay the price of Jason’s infidelity and his callous abandonment. She escapes to Athens in a golden deus ex machina chariot to eventually marry Aegeus. In Stone’s version, the bookseller from the beginning doesn’t reappear to rescue Anna. After making his jokey performance of the man with no penis, he’s never seen again.
This Medea dies with her children. The fire that consumes their house fuses their three bodies together, re-establishing the trope of the good mother, even if only in grisly death. She dies telling Lucas’ voicemail that she’s being reunited with her children and that one day, when Lucas dies too, he will be welcomed back into their blissful family unit. Gag.
To me this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the epic tragedy of the original and the qualities that have made Medea an enduring character for millennia: her deliberateness, and the horror she causes the patriarchal sensibilities of the story’s audience. The unforgivable transgression of a mother calculatingly killing her own children has horrified the male gaze for centuries. It’s troubling to me that Euripides could have a better understanding of – and more sympathy for – the ill-used woman over two thousand years ago than Stone can manage to drum up in 2021. It’s as if he can only see Medea through Jason’s eyes. It makes me wonder how differently this adaption might have been – how much more nuanced and sensitive to the politics of the story which are still so evident today – if it had been adapted and directed by a woman.
But, as the production’s dramaturg Peter van Kraaij (I think) tells the audience in Adelaide via Zoom before the show, they love Stone in the Netherlands. Van Kraaij even goes so far as to thank Australia for the environment that produced Stone, as if that environment was somehow nurturing of artists and not plagued by a culture of scarcity, chronic underfunding and a hierarchical system that puts a handful of metropolitan-based companies at the top while everybody else struggles by on fumes, and the suburbs and regions are starved of meaningful engagement.
The Netherlanders’ effusive praise of the Australian arts sector for producing Stone seemed, to me at least, a bit ill-informed and tone deaf. Credit where credit is due, however. Stone’s skill with dialogue seems to have improved in the intervening decade, though it’s possible that this is achieved by the translation.
The staging of the work hovers somewhere between a live-streamed theatre work and a live television broadcast. The cast are performing in their theatre in Amsterdam at 11am their time, while we sit in Her Majesty’s Theatre at 8.30 pm. Their theatre is empty of audience as Amsterdam, like much of Europe, is still under severe lockdown, and they are performing this purely for us and a smaller audience also watching in Mt Gambier.
When the play begins, it is seen through a camera that takes in the whole of the stage in Amsterdam and fills the screen that spans the stage of Her Maj. The ratio is just about right so that you can almost believe that the actors are there with us, allowing us to take in the whole of the mise en scene, and to make our own decisions on where to focus. The stark white box they perform in – another trope that Stone’s work hasn’t grown out of – almost matches the dimensions of the live stage, and the experience is almost like watching the real thing.
But it quickly deploys close-ups and odd angles, immediately reminding us, as it cuts from view to view, that this is on the big screen. Curiously, by getting in close to the action, it sacrifices intimacy for effect. I wonder if this might have been more effective on the small screen rather than as a cinematic experience. I can also only imagine how much more powerful it might have been had Covid not made touring the production impossible.
There are a few minor technical glitches, some momentary freezes and visuals that fall briefly out of synch with the audio, but these are perhaps inevitable and certainly forgivable given the circumstances. What is, I think, unforgivable is how Stone turns Medea’s story into Jason’s. The women of the story are engaged in a fight to the death over the wet rag of a man at the centre of it all. Despite the powerhouse performance of Heebink, who is on stage almost all the time, the action of the story revolves around Lucas. One might even be tempted to feel sorry for him, harried as he is by this “crazy woman”.
Finally, with everyone but Lucas dead by the end, Anna’s tragedy finishes with Lucas wallowing in his own tragedy, on his knees in the ashes of his former life. There’s no triumph here for Medea; instead she slips away from the world, escaping the impossible knots she has been tied into by the patriarchy, leaving Jason to reel from what he has lost. The tragic flaw has been Jason’s all along: the hamartia of the tragic hero is not Medea’s rage, but Jason’s infidelity and ambition. With his final image, Stone undermines Medea’s story and puts the man back at the centre of the tragedy.
If you can see past the chauvinism in the conception of this work, it’s a remarkable performance that is emotionally devastating and deeply tragic. Sadly, I think the greater tragedy here might be what Stone does to Medea.
Medea, after Euripides, written and directed by Simon Stone, scenograpy by Bob Cousins, lighting design by Bernie van Velzen, sound by Stefan Gregory, costume design by An D’Huys. Performed by Marieke Heebink, Aus Greidanus Jr, Eva Heijnen, Bart Slegers, Alexander Elmecky, Joy Delima, Titus Theunissen and Sonny van Utteren. Screened at Her Majesty’s Theatre Live from Amsterdam as part of the Adelaide Festival on March 4.