Oxford Playhouse / touring
Opened 3 February, 2010

Audiences composed predominantly of school and college students can serve as interesting bellwethers: they may not be as nuanced in their responses as more accustomed theatregoers, but they are seldom downright wrong per se. So I felt it to be when watching the first leg of Northern Broadsides’ latest touring production in Oxford in a house where I may have been the oldest non-teacher present.
Poet and critic Tom Paulin has written a translation of Euripides that is mostly unadorned demotic speech, suited to the Broadsides’ policy of presenting classics in a blunt Yorkshire voice; however, the effect can sometimes be bathetic, as when Medea, having murdered Jason’s new bride-to-be, King Creon of Corinth and her own two sons by Jason and about to be spirited away in an airborne chariot, climaxes her final triumphant speech to him with, “Fuck off!” In terms of finding a musical idiom for the choric sequences and incantations, director Barrie Rutter has definitely hit upon something by opting for the blues; yet the young audience could not but suppress a titter or two when the three-strong chorus of Corinthian women (with Yorkshire accents) began blowing blues harmonicas. It may not be that universal a language.
The story of Medea has fascinated artists in all media down the ages, but particularly through the past century and a half since ideas of women’s autonomy began to take hold. We feel ambivalence towards the character, admiring her for daring to assert herself whilst deploring the bloody manner in which she does so. In the role here, black actress/singer Nina Kristofferson (delivering her lines with a slight Caribbean accent to underscore Medea’s status as an outsider in Greece) has a ramrod back, remaining defiantly upright even at her most impassioned. Unfortunately, she does a lot of being impassioned. Medea is not the subtlest of roles, but it does call for dramatic range; Kristofferson tends to restrict herself to a few discrete notes, mostly towards the high end. Several times she begins a set-piece speech at a shout and builds up from there to a shriek. Rutter’s production is an efficient rendering (and at 85 minutes or so a sprightly one), but given the perennial popularity of the theme it will surely not be long before another and a better one comes along.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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