Medea | Talkback

On 26 October, members of the Medea cast stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the show. Assistant Director Sara Joyce hosted. [SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.] Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.

Sarah: I’m Sarah, I’m the Assistant Director on the show and because tonight is a [captioned] performance, I ask both from the brilliant company and for when we’re asking questions that you please speak clearly, not too quickly and not over one another if possible.  So I think we should start by the company introducing themselves and the play, they may be slightly unrecognisable.  So can we start with you Andy? Can you just introduce yourselves and who you play?

Andy: I’m Andy, I play Medea’s father and Creon.

Charlotte: I’m Charlotte, I played chorus woman with the big red wig and the messenger at the end.

Kate: I’m Kate and I played Medea.

Ruth: I’m Ruth and I was one of the chorus, I had the big dark wig and I kept going on about my husband Joe.

Emily: I’m Emily and I’m in the chorus with red hair.

Amanda: I’m Amanda and I play the mother and I wasn’t in the chorus.

Richard: I’m Richard and I played Aegeus.

Michelle: I’m Michelle and I played Marta the cleaner.

Sarah: Great. So many people tonight, thank you for staying. I’d love to immediately open it to the floor, since I hope there are some questions burning.  Does anyone have a question they’d like to ask?

Audience Member 1: My first reaction was, it was a modern comedy, a bitter comedy, about husbands, wives and children. The Greek part didn’t seem to be anything to do with it.

Sarah: The reaction is the Greek part doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. Charlotte Randall?

Charlotte: Oh, go on then.

Andy: Your starter for ten.

Sarah: Would you agree with that comment that there’s no element of the Greek in this version?

Charlotte: Well. It’s the same story as in a woman who is abandoned by her husband for another woman and then goes through some extreme emotions as a result of that and I would say that any woman that has been through that… feels very Greek.

Laura: What about then from a male perspective? Richard, would you agree?

Richard: I think probably you want to talk to Rachel who wrote the version and Rupert who directed it. I mean all I can say is that the first thing that Rachel Cusk said to us on the first day was that she’d followed the arc of the story as closely as she could, so for instance in the original Creon, the king, and Aegeus both have one scene. So she followed the arc of the story.  It may just be that the adaptation tricked you into feeling that it was totally modern and not Greek. Because actually she’s transported the characters so effectively, I think. Actually the Greek is absolutely implicit still in the structure and who they are, so that’s what I would say. But, if that was your reaction that’s entirely your legitimate reaction.

Audience Member 1: Whatever the pros and cons of that. It was a great evening in the theatre.

Sarah: Any other questions? Yes.

Audience Member 2: Was it a conscious decision to, well it seems to me that Medea is portrayed as a heroic individualist… is that where Rachel was coming from?

Sarah: A heroic individualist.

Audience Member 2: Because it seems that the women are obnoxious and the men are even worse. It seems that she had turned the antihero of Medea into actually a universal heroic individual. Was that deliberate?

Sarah: Was it deliberate to subvert the idea of Medea as the anti-hero?  I think Kate would best answer this.

Kate: I think Euripides wanted her to be a hero. Euripides, it turns out, according to Rachel who did a lot of homework, a lot of studying for this, was actually married twice and both of his wives left him for other men. So Euripides was actually Medea, if you like. In the original she’s an exile, who’s caused havoc back home and brought that legacy with her with Jason. In ours the crime is that she speaks out, but not she’s a sorceress which is in the original. But that she speaks the truth, that she’s a writer, she’s an artist, she’s a speaker of truth and that is the crime. It’s very autobiographical…  anyone who knows Rachel’s work will know that it comes from a very visceral ‘Greek’ place for Rachel. It’s about expressing the inequality in the gender politics that is present now and was 2,000 years ago. Interestingly the chorus switch in the latter part of the play, they start to be more reflective of their own situation. Although they’re being obnoxious they suddenly start to inhabit a landscape which is not dissimilar to hers.

Sarah: I was going to ask Ruth and Emily about that kind of ‘chorus of obnoxiousness’ if you like and leading on from that, there is a real sense of a collective with the chorus. But equally, I find anyway, a strong individuation within it, and I was wondering about how you found both dynamics.

Emily: I think that’s the challenge. I think it works better if you do hear the individual voices and if we don’t just come across as obnoxious, but if we come across as maybe voicing things that we’ve all felt in our darker moments as parents, or members of a clan or not wanting to be part of a clan. Wanting desperately to kind of round on somebody because actually you feel insecure about something. There’s detail in there to be found and to pull out.

Ruth: That was very much in the writing wasn’t it? In the text you can see five very clear characters. They were quite easily definable and yet at the same time they share each other’s thoughts at certain points. Like some people will finish other people’s sentences and stuff like that. But and then so become a kind of collective voice. And then also the movement, the choreography, that gave us a sense of a group. I think another thing about  the chorus is that we’re a kind of collective in the fact that we’re all very isolated. Even though we’re speaking as a gaggle of women and finishing each other’s sentences, we’re not really listening to each other. We’re all in our own little world of pain and yet we come across as this five-headed beast. 

Audience Member 3: One of the striking elements of this play is the seeming lack of motherly love with the children. About halfway through there’s all the thoughts about carving with a knife on their bodies and eventually in this version the mother sends the children to live with their father. I wonder, how does that interact with looking at the play as a comment on gender politics and supposed equality in the responsibility of parents or the relationship in this kind of situation. Why is implementing the lack of motherly love in this context something that is positive or more progressive from a feminist or gender politics point of view?

Kate: I’m really sorry that you may have picked up on the fact that I say ‘if words were razor blades I would carve my name… I’d slit their throats and carve my name in their dead faces’. That’s actually targeted towards Jason and Glauce. So I probably did it badly tonight - that’s about them, not the children. Interestingly, unlike  the Euripides, and I was in a production of Medea 15 years ago with Fiona Shaw and I was in the chorus, so I know this play really well because I sat on the stage listened to it 180 times, every night. I know Euripides back to front and Rachel actually, unusually gives the children a huge voice in this production. Euripides doesn’t and neither does any other adaptation I’ve seen. When you meet Rachel - she doesn’t infantilise her children. It’s really important for her to see the children as individual. Now, I do feel determined towards them but also the argument is that he’s left. He’s thinking that his ego, and abandoning her, has no effect on the children - “the children are fine”, he says, “most of their friends’ parents are divorced” etc.  She’s the one defending, “no they’re not fine, they’re not fine.”  She may not be fawning on them, but she’s letting them speak and experience what’s happening. He has no connection with them whatsoever in the show. So, I think quite the opposite actually. Even though it’s a cold truth, she’s actually giving them a voice that they’ve never had in any other adaptation. Your latter point about equality, I think that’s something that I certainly am drawn to in this whole show. I think all of us, parents and non-parents, feel the cultural narrative attached to being a mother is so profoundly capping and difficult for women to deal with. Even in a narrative such as this, you’re still labelled ‘bad’ if you think “I can’t go on"…  I’m a bad mother for even imagining not being with them. Whereas men don’t have that same cultural narrative.

Audience Member 4: It’s emotional blackmail that they are completely unaware of. The idea of the role of the woman as the ‘mother duck’ that is traditionally sacrificed.

Kate: Yes. The traditional role is that you should put up and shut up and sacrifice yourself for your children.  Now Medea’s not sacrificing her children, she’s telling it as it is. Now that was probably more maternal, to not infantilise your children.

Audience Member 5: And yet in a way in the original where the treatment of Euripides is that Medea actually really does kill her children and is killing a part of herself. So it didn’t feel that way in this production.

Kate: But I’m struck by this adaptation that the boys have a lot to say. And it requires a huge amount of maturity with children to do what Rachel wants them to do. So I find that is another way of being determined, is to give them a voice rather than just being infantilised. It’s another way of doing it I think.

Sarah: And she does include the idea with the chorus and you Amanda as the ‘lovely’ mother perpetuate it, how women perpetuate this silencing of other women. Is this character like you? Let’s try again shall we? No it’s not at all like Amanda.

Amanda: No it is. I can’t stand children. I had a mother who was very similar, who was like a battering ram, so I guess I know how to play her.  But Rupert kept saying, “No I want more, I want more, come on you’ve got to be worse, worse”. I know feel like some sort of rolling pin on you {Kate}. I feel dreadful every night.

Audience Member 6: I’m not that familiar with the original but this maid role, is it more a kind of gossip thing or does she cause it?

Sarah: Is it a gossipy thing did you say?

Audience Member 6: The maid, does she end up causing the death of the children…

Richard: Oh you mean is she putting the idea…

Michelle: There’s no maid or anything in the original, so this is something that Rachel has come up with herself, but I think what she wanted to do when she wrote the cleaner was to have a character that is, to all intents and purposes, also exiled. So is away from her children and going through a similar experience. Actually I’m going to say this, and it always comes as a bit of a surprise to people, is that she’s not really there. She is someone for Medea to talk to. It is a device and it enables the play to talk about those ideas about mothers killing their children, mothers leaving their children. Because Rachel was very  very strident that this Medea would not kill her babies.

Audience Member 6: Is it a kind of justification?

Sarah: A justification on her not killing the children?

Audience Member 6: On her killing…

Sarah: On her killing the children?

Michelle: I think she says that this can happen, and isn’t it unbelievable that it can happen? But the cleaner, as a character, hasn’t killed her child. She’s thought about it. But she’s also thought it’s easier to be away from it because it’s so painful to be in this broken family.

Audience Member 7: Was there any kind of improvisation or adaptation?

Kate: There was no improvisation, but the script was constantly being adjusted like a piece of new writing always is, in process. We were still rehearsing it two hours before press night. It was ceaseless, it was absolutely endless. Which we were up for, but it was difficult. But that is the nature of new writing, of that kind of collaboration. Sometimes she wasn’t in the room but Sarah would be there emailing her immediately if one of us was saying ‘I’m not sure what she means by that’. We did a lot of transplanting lines from different scenes, transplanting scenes, with new scenes coming daily. How many drafts did we have?

Sarah: I’d say in total about 10 drafts just since we started rehearsal.

Kate: But previous of that though there are four or five. So it’s a constant process and that’s exciting.

Ruth: She was very open. If Rupert said, “I think we need this…” she’d just be like, “Yes okay” (mimes typing on a computer).

Kate: As a novelist I think she found that exhilarating. Because she’s usually at home, writing her manuscript, sending it to her editor, getting the notes back etc… whereas theatre is all about the collaboration. I think she was just amazed at that.

Emily: She got instant visibility of her work.

Kate: I think now she’s caught by the bug.

Sarah: Just to add to that, the way Rupert works in a preview process is he fully takes on everything he feels he gets back from the audience. I think this final version regardless of your opinion on the end is incredibly clear. We would do a show in preview, and such credit to Rupert and the company, and be back in here at 1pm the next day - Michele, the chorus and Kate had a new scene that was added the week of press night. We would re-rehearse everything. I think that’s something that’s magical about this production.  Whether you know it or not, it was in collaboration with the audiences who came as well. 

Audience Member 7: The chorus, you’ve talked a little bit about it, but I always find it terribly fascinating, I seem to remember reading years and years ago the chorus has a huge part in building up the climax at the end. I didn’t feel they played the role like that this evening. 

Kate: Marta, the cleaner, provides quite a lot of that in argument. She has a dialogue with Medea, you know - “there’s a woman who killed her child. She got away with it.” So I do  an awful lot of mystery rather than going “I’m gonna kill the kids!” There’s a lot of information coming at me where I’m maybe not transmitting what I’m thinkin. With the chorus there’s a section in here where I say “I was driving in the road” and the girls are saying, “what are you doing that for?  It’s dangerous, driving on the road.  What about your children, did they know you were there?” So that section is about that momentum and there’s a lot of metaphor in this about cars and engines. Rachel uses the idea of the car, the engine of motherhood and the relationship just finally stopping - there’s no more oil in the tank, there’s no more petrol in the tank. So actually interestingly because I do know the play really well, actually you can really, really track it, quite specifically with things like that. Even at the end where she goes off in her chariot into the sun – I want to live in my own body, I want to remember what it’s like to be alone in the sun.  It’s just Rachel’s way, but actually if you were to line them up, they really not as dissonant as you think. It’s just a trick. There are quite a few lines I say, that are very similar, “Let the river flow uphill for a change, let the water come to the source”, which is completely taken from Euripides. I understand your point, but she’s just done it differently.

Ruth: I suppose in order to compensate for the lack of vocal input of the chorus towards the end where it’s getting more frantic we do kind of rip the set apart.  The movement section that followed that was, I suppose, a physical expression of it.

Audience Member 7: That’s very interesting because, maybe it’s just my reaction I don’t know, but the way I reacted to what was happening at the end with, especially with the sort of orgiastic dance, was that Medea was actually expressing all the frustration that was starting to come out after they’d been, what my partner called, ‘the Mumsnet chorus’ at the beginning. I got the feeling that she was doing what they really wanted [to do].

Emily: I think that’s right. The chorus not only start to worry about Medea but they start to worry about themselves and what they might do, I think that was what Rupert wanted in a way. Things start to shift.

Ruth: It’s also power and release and just…

Audience Member 7: Putting them in touch with some of their darkest feelings

Ruth: Which turn out to be quite scary feelings, I suppose. Euripides getting in touch with that means you can potentially kill your children. I don’t know.

Sarah: I want to grasp on to the idea of dark feelings and ask Andy something. What I wanted to ask you for ages: your ‘lovely’ character of Creon says some very nice things. Amongst other things, and actually Andy plays Medea’s father and Creon in the production, you have lines like, “your father didn’t want you” and “my mother let me suck her titties”. I mean it’s quite shocking, in a way. It’s incestuous. Is that there for shock value?

Andy: No. I think it’s there to show what the typical man thinks, even if he never articulates it as such. I think it’s a strength of the whole piece that actually all the characters apart from Medea act typically -  what society actually demands of them, how women should behave once they become mothers and Creon articulates the level of misogyny comes out. He typifies what many, many, many men actually feel even if they don’t actually express themselves in that way. The other thing he typifies, picking up something Kate said earlier, is that Creon infantilises his daughter. So his sexual fantasies about his daughter are disturbing, but they are also a process of infantilising her and thereby infantilising all women. So Creon really, to me, represents man in his rawest state. Because Creon’s every line  typifies my hatred and loathing and fear of women. Partly I think that’s why the scene seems, to me, so powerful, because I represent in a capsule the society against which Medea is attempting to… rebel is a cheap word, not so much rebel for political reasons, but to assert and retain her identity in place of what she is expected or how she is expected to behave. What she says to Creon will make her stronger in her battle for her own identity. I don’t know whether that’s answered the question.

Sarah: No it has.

Audience Member 8: It’s not a question, I’d like to thank the Almeida Theatre because I’m very deaf and I followed the entire play with the captions and what you’re saying now. Now, if I came to any other play I’d be as frustrated as you are on the stage because I wouldn’t follow a thing. So the Almeida has gone out of their way tonight to make me happy.

Audience Member 9: My comment is to Kate. I was staggered by the absolute power and rawness you brought to your role. It was really, really horrible. I was wondering how that must impact on your life at home?

Kate: I have two children and so I haven’t got time to indulge that unless I’m here in the building! I have a very supportive company, who tell lots of jokes - we’re always laughing and being kind to each other. There’s an old trope in the theatre industry which is when you’re doing a comedy everyone’s a bastard. When you do a tragedy everyone’s really nice to each other, because no one’s worried about standing on each other’s gags. Yes it is harrowing, it’s tiring, but I think working in a hospice is probably harder. Also it’s a job that I really adore and I respect. Sometimes it feels a little bit pornographic to do that every night.  But no it’s a thrill and it’s a great privilege and I have really lucked out on my company, they’ve been incredibly supportive. And my director obviously who’s my husband, so.... Also Sarah’s been amazing,.. sorry if this sounds like I’ve won an award or something. No, the truth is it’s a thrill and a great privilege to perform that stuff because I know that it’s not just people who are going through that stuff that it hurts, but it’s the children as well. What’s interesting and this is my final, kind of technical point, what Rachel’s done is a really extraordinary thing. The techniques I have to employ are really different. There’s the classical technique of direct address, which feels very muscular and Shakespearean. Then there’s a kind of Pinteresque or Beckettian, quite a Pinter quality going on with Creon, and Aegeus and the mother and the chorus and Michele, that’s quite nebulous and weird. Then you’ve got the Royal Court upstairs play with me and Jason. So I’m constantly battering round with these different styles - but it’s a thrill and a ride. But thank you for your concern. I’ll be getting the breakfast on later so I don’t have time to worry about it.

Sarah: Thank you all so much for staying and thank you again to not only for the cast you see on stage, but all the team who do all the lighting, they’re quite incredible and they’re here all hours and to the captioning. Thank you.


Medea | 25 September - 14 November 2015 | Info & Tickets 

You might also like