The ancient Greeks, not having the technology to develop the roller coaster, invented something better. They called it tragedy.
The current revival of Euripides' "Medea," imported from London and starring Diana Rigg, is indeed a kind of thrill ride, propelling us helplessly along, careening on the edge of precipices from which we get fearful glimpses of the darkness of human nature.
Greek tragedy also has poetry, which this production undercuts. But if it counteracts the image of tragedy as a static exercise in posture and exemplary diction, it's all to the good.
"Medea" is about a sorceress who uses her skills to help her lover Jason steal the Golden Fleece. When Jason dumps her for another woman, she applies her resources to vanquish him, murdering her own two sons in the process.
This production uses a muscular, invigorating translation by the British poet Alistair Elliot. It has a directness, a freshness, that makes the play seem quite contemporary.
Rex Warner's much admired 1946 translation, for example, has Medea say, "[A woman] arrives among new modes of behavior and manners,/ And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home/ How best to manage him who shares the bed with her."
Elliot's Medea says, far more succinctly and pungently, "You need to be clairvoyant/ To satisfy this stranger in your bed."
The juiciness of the translation is matched in the physical production. Peter J. Davidson has designed an imposing, stage-high wall of rusted sheet metal. The clatter it makes suggests the savagery at the heart of the play. The somberness of the set is heightened by Wayne Dowdeswell's powerfully dramatic lighting.
In the final moments, the triumphant Medea sails away - proud and indomitable, jutting forward like the prow of a ship cutting through an angry sea, clouds racing by behind her. The image director Jonathan Kent and his designers have created has a theatricality that is quite thrilling.
Kent's direction moves the play forward like a juggernaut which is as it should be. His inventiveness, however, is not always successful. Rather than use the chorus as bystanders commenting ploddingly on the action, for example, Kent dresses them in traditional black garb of Greek peasant women. When they move about like crones, when they chant in astringent harmonies, the effect is dramatic. When, however, they dance or sing the verse in simpleminded melodies, they seem unwittingly comic.
As Medea, Rigg has a stateliness that hardly conjures up a woman devoting all her energies to revenge. Early in the play, addressing the deceitful Jason, her lines are full of irony, which she projects witheringly, scathingly. This creates sympathy for the character but seems a bit too close to drawing room comedy.
Although her portrayal has a riveting intensity, it reflects the rhetorical skill we associate with English acting. It conveys neither primitive force nor psychological depth.
The supporting cast is strong, especially Tim Oliver Woodward as Jason, Donald Douglas as Aegeus and Dan Mullane as a messenger. Some of the acting lacks subtlety, but it always has drive.
In England, revivals are common. Theatergoers expect each to shed light on an already familiar play. Here, we rarely see intelligent classical productions. We expect each to be the millennium. This production may not satisfy such expectations, but it has an elemental power that explains why these plays endure.
Medea is heroic and horrific - a character drawn in blood and belching fire, a monster of motherhood, a terrorist freedom fighter for the rights of Woman. A fascinating, yet repelling creature unlike any other in legend or literature.
You may come across a few like her in real life, however. And that's the strength of this character by Euripides, created in 431 B.C. and still haunting our hearts and minds, still challenging actors and even later playwrights.
Last night at the Longacre Theatre, we found a new and powerfully touching British "Medea," starring the redoubtable Diana Rigg in a staging sensitively aligned for our times and concerns.
It is the special glory of a classic to speak in slightly different accents to different generations, and frankly - as Bertolt Brecht so firmly suggested - this multi-accented ambiguity is vastly assisted by translation.
The advantages that some have with, say Shakespeare, we have with the Greeks, and those classic texts are continually between being re-Englished for the times. We used to have the old dry Gilbert Murray; last time out on Broadway in 1982, Zoe Caldwell used the Robinson Jeffers translation, first utilized by Dame Judith Anderson.
Now this exceptionally high-powered version, staged by Jonathan Kent, offers a translation by Alistair Elliot, which tends to humanize the proceedings, making for example, the Chorus women notably more individualized.
The production, brought here by British producer Bill Kenwright, originated at London's Almeida Theater and has a spectactularly brutalist look.
Peter J. Davidson's architectural setting consists of two huge expanses of steel plates grained with brown rust. This is not only coldly impressive, but, at the play's blood-stretched conclusion, is used by Kent for a fascinating coup de theatre which startles by its geographic simplicity.
Kent - and Elliot - emphasize throughout the modernity of the play's psychology. They stress the betrayed Medea's character as "always willful, now wild with hate," and explaining not merely the murder of her husband's new bride and her father, but also the infanticide of her children, with her cry: "The rage of my heart is stronger than my reason."
Even at the end, as she triumphantly journeys over the waves to sanctuary in Athens (the airy chariot of Euripides has been abandoned for a stage effect both more symbolic and practical), you feel her lawyer must be preparing the first "victim defense."
Rigg is wonderful but unconventional. She gives her Medea quite a few domestic touches of scathing, almost Shavian irony that are corrosively funny.
She also avoids any sense of the exotic or oriental - Medea was not Greek, that was part of the problem. But while the power of her fury amply convinced me, my one doubt about the interpretation concerned her ability to slay her children.
Still, her performance is great enough in all conscience. The supporting cast is also superb - particularly Tim Oliver Woodward's nobly insensitive Jason, and John Turner's arrogant Creon.
This is classic theater that should not be missed - it has the sacred breath of renewal to it.
Mountain climbers have Everest. Swimmers have the English Channel. Actresses have "Medea."
The title character of Euripides' tragedy is one of the huge, ravenous roles of dramatic literature. It will take everything a performer can give, then ask for more. Sheer talent is not enough. Courage and a certain recklessness are required to conquer it. A wild and exotic creature who knows potions that cure and poisons that kill, Medea is also a forsaken wife and tortured mother. She is one of us and not like us at all.
In the London-born production that began a limited engagement last night at the Longacre Theater, Diana Rigg brings a blazing intelligence and an elegant ferocity to the part. In the course of the 90-minute production, she grovels ignominiously at the feet of men. But by the end, she stands over them like the mighty figurehead of a ship about to sail for distant lands. For the actress, who has always managed to suggest impeccable breeding even when she is behaving abominably, the evening is a triumph.
It can also be counted a considerable success for the director, Jonathan Kent, who has set the play in an abstract box that could be the courtyard of a grim prison. The three-story walls are made of rusting metal panels. Whenever someone pounds on them, they produce thunderous echoes. The doors shut with a clang. Peter J. Davison's austere design does more than convey a sense of Medea's exile in a foreign land -- an incarceration, really -- it is a potent image for an inhospitable universe, conceived by the gods for man's misery and pain.
Working closely, Mr. Kent and Mr. Davison have engineered a spectacular climax for a tragedy that consists primarily of a series of increasingly horrible revelations. Abandoned by Jason for a younger woman, Medea won't rest until she has poisoned her rival and her rival's father, Creon. If she spares her errant husband, it is only so she can drive him into deepest despair by slaughtering their two young sons. Atrocity follows atrocity. Then, vengeance taken, she locks herself behind the rusted walls.
The biggest jolt is still to come, however. "Unbar the doors," howls a grief-stricken Jason (Tim Oliver Woodward), desperate to see the corpses of his sons but unable to find a way in. Suddenly, as if shaken by an earthquake, the metal wall before him collapses, the panels crashing to the ground with a colossal din. There, high above, stands Medea in a blood-soaked gown: victorious, remorseless, inhuman. Jason's pleading exasperates her. The last word out of her mouth before the lights fade is "rubbish." She virtually spits it down at him.
The women of Corinth (Judith Paris, Jane Loretta Lowe, Nuala Willis), who make up the chorus, are the sorts of Greek peasants who hover like crows on the fringes of "Zorba." Their clothes are black and their faces are lined. Sometimes they sing their choral passages (Jonathan Dove has written the haunting musical line). Sometimes they speak them. But for all their grand and woeful thoughts, they mostly communicate a fearful helplessness, before taking to wooden chairs on the sidelines. The play is Medea's. So is the agony.
Unlike Zoe Caldwell, who emphasized the sexuality of the character (and won a Tony Award in 1982 for her efforts), Ms. Rigg sees Medea as a woman of restless intellect. An orgiastic fervor informed Ms. Caldwell's performance; she had a savage growl in her voice. A passionate sense of injustice propels Ms. Rigg, whose voice never entirely loses its intrinsic musicality. Her hair is swept back into a tight braid, a style that sets off her grave and handsome features. Initially, only the aggressive jut of her chin and the smolder in her eyes give her away.
While some of Paul Brown's modernistic costumes -- in particular, a greatcoat for the king that seems to be growing hair -- are a bit wacky, the lighting by Wayne Dowdeswell and Rui Rita is almost brutal in its directness. At one point, a merciless shaft of light actually forces Medea into a corner, even as she is wrestling with her conscience and trying to steel herself to the awful deeds ahead. In what may be the best messenger role ever written, Dan Mullane, motionless in a fierce spotlight, describes ghastly offstage events with frozen horror. He could be responding to a police grilling.
The male characters in "Medea" don't come off well. But then they never have, and Alistair Elliot's stripped-for-action translation of the play further emphasizes Euripides' feminist sympathies. Either the men are smug and patronizing (like John Turner's Creon) or else they're smug and self-serving (like Mr. Woodward's Jason). Although Aegeus (Donald Douglas) shows some understanding of Medea's plight and promises her asylum in Athens, he's got a prudent streak running down his back and makes it clear that she'll have to get there by herself.
None of them can hold their own against her on moral or dramatic grounds. And when Ms. Rigg allows herself to indulge in some traditional feminine wiles, their defenses prove pathetically weak. "I am clever," she admits boldly to Creon, before realizing her error and backing down. The voice softens, and she adds, "but I am not that clever." The qualification is shrewd, self-protective. She's not ready for the kill yet.
Let men boast that they take all of life's risks while women sit safely at home. "I'd rather stand three times in battle by my shield," she responds, "than once give birth." Ms. Rigg, who has always had a wry wit, does not forgo it here. In addition to the knife in the folds of her robe, irony is one of her weapons. Medea, a victim, is also a victimizer.
The contradictions are tantalizing. I'd want to see her if I were you.
There can be few more daunting theatrical challenges than bringing Greek tragedy to life for a contemporary audience. Nearly two years ago, London's adventurous Almeida Theater Company premiered Alistair Elliot's translation of Euripedes' "Medea" for a production starring Diana Rigg; the later West End production has now made its way to Broadway. Rigg is not likely to be as strong a box office draw here asshe is in London, and without wildly enthusiastic reviews, the 10-week run will probably be a struggle.
"Medea" is a tale of vengeance so raw it challenges the heart as well the soul: An enchantress, Medea has used her sorcery ruthlessly to aid husband Jason in his rise to power, only to see him abandon her and their two children for a marriage of convenience to a younger woman. After bemoaning her state to the Women of Corinth and a nurse, Medea exacts a terrible revenge, murdering the new wife and her own children.
Probably the best-known adaptation is Robinson Jeffers', which was performed on Broadway in 1947 by Judith Anderson and revived in 1974.
Elliot's new, condensed translation has a vernacular, though not vulgar, tone that makes the story accessible, and set designer Peter J. Davison has provided an abstract setting. It's highlighted by a wall of copper panels that play a major role in the production's final moments, a shocking coup de theatre further heightened by the stunning lighting design of Wayne Dowdeswell and Rui Rita.
But Rigg's performance left me cold. Anderson's Medea was by all accounts a whorl of rage, passion, anger, lust and heartbreak all packed into a vocal storm that shook up audiences. By contrast, Rigg is technically assured but her performance is notably contained; though she has plenty of vocal power, the delivery isn't well nuanced and comes across as oddly remote.
Moreover, while there's plenty of regret and sense of injustice suggested by the performance, there's no hint in it of Medea's past, which is full of her own opportunism, not to mention bewitchery. This is a rich vein that a contemporary production ought to capitalize on.
The supporting performances are mostly good -- especially fine is John Turner's Creon -- but Jonathan Kent's direction adds to the disconnectedness. It's stagy, particularly in the choral movement. There's still plenty to admire here. But this "Medea" bypasses the heart.