Brighton Fringe 2018
Jason is a shit.
This is the Jason of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, the Greek hero who took the Golden Fleece, overcoming terrible dangers – fire-breathing oxen and armed warriors grown out of a dragon’s teeth. A proper Classical Hero.
What’s less known is that Jason had been seen as a threat by his uncle King Pelias, so he sent him off to look for the Fleece on what was effectively a suicide mission. It was the possession of the King of Colchis, a kingdom at the eastern end of the Black Sea, and Jason only achieved success by seducing the king’s daughter Medea, a sorceress as well as a princess, who gave him the magic potions and spells to enable him to succeed. So Medea betrayed her father, and then to aid their escape she murdered her brother too. When they got home they tricked his own children into carrying out the killing of Pelias – seems he was right to have been wary of Jason.
Nice couple. Along the way they had two children of their own, but since then they’ve settled in Corinth, and now Jason intends to dump Medea and marry the daughter of Creon, the Corinthian king. Medea feels completely abused and abandoned, and she plots revenge …
Euripides’ play concentrates on Medea’s feelings of betrayal. It’s all about their relationship, and how she’s driven by such extreme anger that she kills not just Creon and his daughter but even her own two children – such is her desire to destroy everything that Jason holds dear. In this production, though, Wretched Strangers have given us Jean Anouilh’s take on the story, written in 1946. In Anouilh’s version, it’s much more about Jason wanting to regain his royal status in his homeland of Greece, and where Medea is seen as ‘Other’ – as a ‘barbarian’ from a land far away.
Wretched Strangers was started in 2017, as a European theatre company which aims to give a voice to foreigners living in the UK. The actors, along with the show’s director Paloma Jacob-Duvernet, trained at the London School of Dramatic Art.
For a European theatre company to be taking on this ‘Medea’ seems very appropriate. Today’s Europe is fixated on the problems of immigrants and refugees – of people from ‘there’ coming to settle ‘here’. Ignorance, fear and anger are everywhere, and this play confronts this right from the start.
Medea and her children are living in a caravan just outside Corinth, while Jason is ensconced comfortably within the city. Once it is announced that his marriage is to be the next day, King Creon arrives to tell Medea that she must leave the country. Massimo Guasti is tall and bearded, and in his smart blue suit he looked every inch a ruler. “I have put up with your caravan in this place, but now you must go”.
“Now you must go.” – the never-ending demand of the settled to the itinerant. And a caravan is so insubstantial, so temporary – like a tent, so symbolic of the refugee and the marginalised. Travellers. Gypsies. Tinkers.
“What have I done to your people?” Camille Wilhelm as Medea , tall also, all in black with dark hair, has a powerful voice and here it’s angry and indignant – “Have I looted their farms? Have I poisoned their wells?”. “Not yet”, Creon replies, “but all these you may do one day”.
The fear of violence from ‘The Others’. It’s what we’re hearing all across Europe, from Hastings to Hungary. When Medea tries to remind Creon that Jason is equally complicit in their crimes and murders, the King retorts that – “Jason is one of us. The son of one of our kings. His youth may have been wild but now he does as we do”.
One of us. How often have we heard that phrase in recent years? Unlike how he sees Medea – “You alone came from afar. You alone are a stranger, with your hatred and your witchcraft. Go back to your Caucasus, and leave us here in this rational land”.
It’s interesting that the ‘rational’ Greeks regarded anyone from outside the Greek world, who therefore didn’t speak Greek, as speaking a kind of ‘Ba Ba’ babble – in short, a barbarian, obviously inferior.
Jason says very much the same when he arrives – Piotr Mirowski in pale trousers and waistcoat, and a dress shirt, obviously come from the wedding celebrations in the city. He just wants to settle comfortably back with his own people. Medea is very sexual, but she’s also very dangerous. He’s looking forward to a quieter life with the princess Glauce – “She’s new, she’s simple, she’s pure. I expect humility”. He wants to put Medea firmly behind him. If only.
The play proceeds – inevitably – to its shattering conclusion, with all the main protagonists dead and Jason deranged by the loss of everything he held dear. The only actors left are Medea’s Nurse (Carole Le Clanche) and the Messenger (François Carpentier). These had been minor roles in the main action, but at the end Anouilh gives us a short scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’. The aristocrats are all dead, but life goes on.
Medea’s caravan, with its bodies, is still smouldering in the background, but the Nurse is philosophical – “After the night, the morning comes, and there’s coffee to make. It will be a beautiful day”. The Messenger (I wondered if they would get together) replies – “It will be a good year. There will be sun, and wine and the harvest. There will be bread for everyone this year”.
The stage at The Purple Playhouse is not very big, so there wasn’t much room for movement, which gave a certain amount of stiffness to the production. Also, as a company of actors whose first language is not English, some lines were not as clear as they could have been. But the intensity and enthusiasm with which they took on Anouilh’s text overcame all of this, and the end result was a thrilling performance.
A European theatre company, performing a French play about Greek attitudes to ‘outsiders’, at a time when refugees and immigrants are of increasing concern (both positive and negative) all over the continent. It seems to me that this sort of event is exactly what Brighton Fringe should be doing. I am so pleased that they are. Remember that Jean Anouilh wrote ‘Medea’ in 1946, just after World War Two, when the whole continent was flooded with millions of refugees and ‘displaced persons’.
I’m remembering Massimo Guasti’s Creon, voice booming as he denounced Medea as a barbarian; and Carole Le Clanche’s Nurse, sitting with her Tarot cards while feeding Medea her sly observations. But in truth it was Camille Wilhelm who lifted this production into something really special. Her English is flawless, which certainly helped, but it was the sheer power with which she embodied the anger and rage of Medea that I won’t forget. “I am Medea”, she declaimed on a number of occasions – “A princess and a sorceress”. I was not inclined to disbelieve her.