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Medea

at Barbican

* * * * *

An exceptional reimagining of a classic Greek tragedy that leaves you breathless.

Image of Medea
Image: Sanne Peper

Inspired by Euripidestragedy of the same nameMedea is writer and director Simon Stone‘s modern re imagining of the tale. Together with Internationaal Theatre Amsterdam, he has created a formidable play exploring one woman’s struggle to accept how her life has changed after discovering her husband’s unfaithfulness.

When Medea begins, this discovery has surprisingly already taken place. Rather than portraying a woman seeking revenge against her husband as in the original, Medea instead presents us with the aftermath – with a woman facing the consequences of her vengeful actions.

The stage is a blinding white space, vast but bare, and the lack of character or any props to ground it leads to a deeply clinical feel, not too dissimilar from a psychiatric ward. This surreal staging does not allow for any distractions, drawing all our attention to the action onstage and (perhaps inadvertently) helping to focus our attention on the subtitles translating the Dutch performers’ words.

That’s not to say that Marieke Heebink needs help captivating her audience; as Anna, she is bewitching. Her piercing eyes stare right through you – both when she is looking out to the audience and when her face is projected above the stage-  focusing in on her emotional self as she struggles to accept how her life has changed. Her struggle to mask her resentment towards her ex-husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr) for “making” her punish him for his infidelity is fascinating to watch. Stone’s reworking of the original story is excellent in making Anna more than a jilted lover; her grievances are not just related to her sexual relationship with Lucas, but their working relationship also. Because of his affair, she has ended up losing everything she worked for – while he has profited on her misfortune.

What is particularly striking about Heebink’s performance is her ability to present us with a woman who is simultaneously vulnerable and manipulative. Anna is a fiercely intelligent woman who is not be undermined – especially not by her husband. We see her try to destroy his relationship with the young Clara (Eva Heijnen) and use her sons as bargaining tools. Yet, even though we know what she’s doing is wrong, one cannot help but empathise with this woman who has lost so much at the hands of Lucas. You find yourself being won over by her through her wit and love for her sons.

As such, there is a brilliant dynamic between Anna, Lucas and their two sons, Edgar and Gijs (played by Faas Jonkers and Poema Kitseroo respectively) as they adjust to Anna’s return. In the brief moments of harmony shared by them all, we get a glimpse of the happy family they once were, of the laughter and happiness they shared. Both mummy’s boys at heart, their playful and mischievous natures are encouraged by their mother. That leaves Greidanus Jr with the role of the villain in his family’s eyes, a role he assumes all to easily every time he loses his temper. For Anna, her sons represent her final hold over her husband – as mother to his children, they share a special bond. It is the potential threat that Clara poses to this that causes the main tension between Anna and her ex-husband’s lover: she will not allow herself to be replaced. Though her time on stage feels brief, Heijnen certainly has an effect on Anna through her vindictive – and at times, childish – manner with her lover’s ex-wife. The tension between the two women is palpable, and with Anna’s target now seemingly set on Clara, her presence leaves you feeling uneasy.

There are many clues as to how Medea ends: the title alone hints at what is to come to anyone who knows the classical Greek tale or has heard of the Medea complex. Yet, that doesn’t detract from the horrors that occur. The intensity of the final scene is a testament to Heebink’s performance, as she tells Lucas what she has done through a voicemail. The indifference in her voice, the lack of repentance as she describes her crimes, is chilling. This, combined with the soundtrack – beautifully designed by Stefan Gregory – and the white, featureless stage now peppered with ash, creates a scene so powerful that it leaves you breathless.

From start to finish, Heebink captivates everyone in her sight. While Anna and Lucas’s relationship is left in tatters, Stone has created a perfect marriage in pairing his script with this wonderful cast. Medea is a play that should be remembered as long as the myth. It is truly exceptional.