Medea at Bristol Old Vic

THE story of Medea echoes down the blood-stained centuries. Hers is the ultimate crime – the murder of her own children.

When we hear her story or read newspaper reports of a woman setting fire to her own home with her children in it, or driving her car with her children over a cliff, we shudder with an atavistic horror, and deep in our imagination, we conjure up Medea.

But what drives a woman to do this? How does a loving mother, a devoted wife, a woman who gave up family and country for the man she loves, who had saved him from certain death – how does this woman become the archetype of the murder mother?

Bristol Old Vic associate director George Mann, the son of a divorced single mother who had to battle the system for years to keep and care for her two sons, asked writer Chino Odimba to imagine a modern story of Medea.

The result is an electrifying, shocking, beautiful, sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome and constantly involving night at the theatre.

Chino Odimba has woven a new story into Robin Robertson’s poetic and beautiful translation of Euripides’ Medea. As the play opens, recently abandoned army wife Maddy Lee hears a noise outside her door. She finds a battered book on her doorstep. It is Medea, in Robertson’s translation.

Jack, Maddy’s husband of 11 years, father of her two sons, has left her for a younger woman. Of course he has. It’s a story as old as time. He’s not paying the mortgage. That’s her problem. And it’s somehow her fault she was never able to get a job (or make lasting friendships) as he moved from posting to posting.

Maddy has lived the uprooted life of an army family and now she faces eviction on to the streets with her two young boys.

As she reads the story of Medea, the voices from 2,500 years ago come alive around her. She becomes Medea as Jack becomes Jason. She plans her fight-back.

Akiya Henry as Medea/Maddy dominates the stage. Whether making maximum use of her huge vocal range or standing silent as a statue on the steps that lead to … the future? … Henry is utterly compelling. She is an embodiment not of female suffering but of female courage.

Stephanie Levi-John is Jason/Jack, the slippery man, the opportunist hero with a heart of stone. She is also a member of the chorus who perform Euripides’ words, set to music by Jon Nicholls, drawing on themes and rhythms that range from ancient polyphony to soul and rap.

Michelle Fox is the noble Creon, father of Jason’s new bride-to-be, and the rough bailiff who will throw Maddy and her boys out. Eleanor Jackson is Jack’s new squeeze. Kezrena James and Jessica Temple are Maddy’s friends, the voices of transgressive or conventional womanhood.

Three of the cast of six women are graduates of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and were in the memorable BOVTS production of Euripides’ Trojan Women – it is fascinating to see how this ancient Greek dramatist’s portrayal of strong women resonates with a 21st century audience.

This was a production that got people talking, excitedly, passionately, to their companions or total strangers. I spent the interval talking to two very bright teenage girls. They didn’t know the Greek myths but this play made them want to know more. They were totally involved in Maddy’s story, asking questions about army wives, shocked at the brutality of her treatment. They were rooting for her.

This is what theatre at its best can do. It gets people talking, crying, laughing, gasping, cheering … thinking.

Medea is at Bristol Old Vic until 27th May.


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