GREEKS: Oedipus/ElectraMedea
Tramway @ The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow
18 March, 2000

As one of its final peripatetic productions before returning to its own newly refurbished premises, Glasgow's Tramway last week hosted a trio of Greek adaptations by Scottish writers, with a chance to see all three on the Saturday. It is a truism that these plays, two and a half millennia old, continue to speak to us, but additional interest derives from being able to see at one sitting the ways in which they speak to different writers, who go on to refashion them in diverse veins.

David Greig's Oedipus is a stark thing, eschewing circumlocution: Oedipus recounts the prophecy made about him as being simply that "I would kill my father and fuck my mother". More poetic but no more florid is the remark made in pity of the king after his final discovery: "You must be made of pain." When the messenger recounts Jocasta's offstage death and Oedipus's blinding of himself, her account is pared down to the simplest possible parataxis: "he... and he... and then he...". The chorus dressed in various hues of dust-drab on a stage bare except for a skeletal Godot tree instinctively avoid contact with Neil McKinven's Oedipus and Maureen Beattie's Jocasta as they conduct the civic ritual of discovery, with Oedipus goaded from perfunctory formality to stubborn resolve by the bleakly serene authority of Peter D'Souza's Tiresias upbraiding him for bringing the gods' curse upon Thebes.

Tom McGrath's Electra is more cautious, less keen to blend the adaptor's identity with the author's. Such distinctive colour as it possesses is located in Graham McLaren's staging (he directs all three plays for his company, theatre babel: Orestes and Pylades enter in army greatcoats, ammo belts and gasmasks, and are met by a chorus who might be contemporary Balkan refugees. When Aegisthus walks across the stage, Molly Innes's Electra (a living admonition in greatcoat and military boots) brandishes a picture of her murdered father at him, a wailing, almost wordless daughter of the disappeared. But in general this 50-minute canter is the least distinguished of the triptych.

The heart sinks a little at the Nurse's opening speech in Medea, fearing that Liz Lochhead has rendered the whole thing into Scots dialect. Not so, although a lively grasp of the demotic pervades her version. What she has done, brilliantly, is infuse matters with a black humour. Beattie's Medea speaks in an all-purpose Ashkenazi Jewish accent, and consistently, grimly deprecates both her own and others' villainy: after Jason's first self-serving defence of himself for ditching Medea in favour of the younger, better-connected Glauke, the scorned Medea turns full to the audience and, poker-faced, makes a "Get this guy!" gesture towards him; she mockingly contemplates her dark plans with, "So many ways of killing which shall I choose?" Ancient Athenian festival presentations would consist of three tragedies performed through the day, followed by a rollicking satyr-play to round things off; in its way, this Medea is a knowing, bad-taste modern cousin of such satyr-plays. This is not to say that Lochhead, McLaren and Beattie sell Medea short in her maternal agonies, either; no hollow "live with it" instructions of a deus ex machina at the close of this version, as Medea and Jason are left mutely to come to terms with events on their own respective accounts.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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