I have just watched three children die at the hands of their parents, collapsing in their arms. Two were killed by their mother, Medea, and one by her father, Agamemnon. These acts of infanticide took place in London, at the Almeida and Gate Theatre, during Robert Icke’s Oresteia and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Medea, respectively. The scenes were an uncomfortable sight that filled my heart with grief and moved me to tears. This was not just because, as a mother, I can no longer witness such horror without being affected, but because the directors managed to make the performed deaths look so unusually “real” through hyper-naturalistic acting and the deployment of poisonous drinks as weapons of choice. It was a particularly effective and affective way to represent death in that it does not involve any make-believe goriness, which might slip into the grotesque. Moreover, if there was ever a way to murder one’s child compassionately and portray the killers as relatable individuals, Icke and Sarks have found it: cast a reluctant, tearful parent building up to the deed with declarations of love for their hapless offspring; make them portray their harrowing moral dilemma whilst holding the children in their arms; then resolve to carry out the brutal crime through chemicals, sparing the children pain and fear.
The resulting on-stage deaths were bloodless and lacking in that deranged violence that is often imagined to take place in the off-stage killings of Greek tragedies. The innocent bodies of three children suddenly dropped lifeless, their heads and limbs hanging, held in the arms of those who had both given and taken away their lives. Instead of the remorseless Agamemnon that Clytemnestra depicts in Aeschylus’ play—Iphigenia’s sacrifice is not even dramatised in the Oresteia, but only recounted in a choral song—two out of three hours of Icke’s production are devoted to representing a caring father, who is torn between the unspeakable pain of hurting his child and the responsibility he has towards his army and his nation. Instead of a cold, heartless assassin, Sarks’ Medea is a loving mother lacerated by agony and torment. As an audience member, I felt I was being asked to put myself in Medea’s or Agamemnon’s shoes—I was being asked to see these alien mythological characters as actual people, the kind of people I might have met. Theatrically speaking, Icke’s and Sarks’s productions were both utterly captivating and exceptionally acted. However the driving impulse behind the adaptation—the desire to make Greek tragedy more “relevant” and plausible—was less than convincing.
These two productions were only two of many Greek adaptations being staged in the UK during 2015. As the “real” Greek tragedy and the Eurozone crisis unfolded in the news, British theatres responded by programming an unusually high number of “classical” tragedies. Whilst speculations on “Grexit”—Greece’s exit from the Eurozone and possibly from the EU—were becoming more and more realistic in the summer, as the Greek people voted against the bailout terms in a referendum, Dan Rebellato hailed the so-called “Grentrance” and the political use of Greek plays as British theatre’s answer to austerity both in Europe and at home (2015). In the chic area of Angel, the Almeida Theatre presented a whole Greek season, starting with Icke’s modernised rewriting of the Oresteia (which also transferred to the West End), followed by James McDonald’s staging of Bacchae in a new version by Anne Carson, and Rupert Goold’s Medea, adapted by Rachel Cusk, in which Medea is a writer dumped by her actor-husband who does not kill her children. The Almeida’s Greek season also included many debates and events exploring the relevance of Greek tragedy today and also organized readings of comedies and Homeric poems, such as Frogs, Lysistrata, and the Iliad.
Above a pub in the wealthy neighbourhood of Notting Hill, the Gate Theatre presented Kate Mulvany’s Medea directed by Sarks, a co-production with Belvoir Sydney, in which the story is seen from the point of view of Medea’s children. The Gate also commissioned four retellings of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis by writers Caroline Bird, Suhaila El-Bushra, Chris Thorpe and Lulu Raczka, which explore the story from different characters’ perspectives, due to open in April 2016. Over at the Southbank, the Globe staged Rory Mullarkey’s adaptation of the Oresteia, directed by Adele Thomas. Not far from the Globe, the Unicorn offered children’s theatre productions of the Minotaur and Odysseus myths adapted by Adam Peck and Timberlake Wertenbaker respectively. While most of the “Grentrance” action took place in London, over in Wales directors Mike Pearson and Mike Brooks staged an immersive, site-specific marathon version of the Iliad based on a version by Christopher Logue. In Manchester, HOME commissioned Blanche McIntyre to direct a shortened version of the Oresteia translated by Ted Hugues, featuring a chorus of local community members, which mimicked the non-professional composition of Athenian choruses.
What is striking in this selection of plays and readings is the marked preponderance of stories in which the main plot or premise hinges on infanticide: young Iphigenia’s sacrifice, which takes place in order for Agamemnon’s warships to reach Troy, is implied in the Oresteia (Almeida; Globe; HOME) and the Iliad (Almeida; National Theatre of Wales), and dramatised in Iphigenia at Aulis (Gate). And of course Medea’s main claim to fame is that she murders her children to hurt her unfaithful husband Jason. We know that the British stage is no stranger to violence against children: Edward Bond’s Saved and Sarah Kane’s Blasted have given us two of the most iconic scenes of contemporary drama in which babies are brutalised in an unashamedly barbaric manner. But in Icke’s and Sarks’ production there was something even more disturbing than in Bond’s and Kane’s plays, if possible: the bizarre but very popular adaptation strategy that attempts to humanise what is ultimately a set of mythological (not psychological) characters; the intention to make infanticide less symbolic, less removed from everyday life, and more naturalistic, understandable, consumable; the portrayal of parents killing their children as plausible, when none of that familiar atmosphere of domestic life or psychological depth is to be found in Greek tragedy. Identification with characters, as Denis Guénoun has argued in his book Le théâtre est-il nécessaire?, was not a mechanism known the Greeks. It is our own attunement to the mechanisms of naturalism and the principles of psychology that make us read Greek tragedy through those lenses, but the circle cannot be squared that easily. It is like reading feminism into Euripides’ Medea when the notion of feminism was totally alien to Euripides. The fact that Euripides’ Medea speaks about women’s oppression and kills her children to hurt her husband does not make her a feminist.
The adaptor of the other Medea presented at London’s Almeida, Rachel Cusk, has written about her unease with the task she set herself of making the play more “actual,” while at the same time retaining the infanticide. Cusk acknowledges the “invitation” of Euripides’ play to explore the “parallels” between ancient mythology and contemporary feminist struggles, but also admits that the tragedy as it stands “forbade” this reconciliation between past and present, between the myth of Medea and “ordinary people”:
The text invited this contemporary reading while also forbidding it, for the famous denouement of Medea’s story is that in order to avenge herself against her faithless husband, she kills their two children. How could such an act be incorporated into a tale of modern, ordinary people, people bedevilled by ambition, selfishness, lust, anger and self-pity as may be, but who were nonetheless unlikely even in extremis to pick up a knife and plunge it into their offspring? In our world, a play about a mother who kills her children is a different kind of play altogether. That play does not concern itself with the traducing of female equality by bourgeois domestic politics; that play is about psychosis (2015).
Cusk’s decision to omit infanticide from the plot, echoing that of novelist Christa Wolf’s feminist rewriting of Medea from 1996, recognises that Greek tragedy resists actualisation. This realisation, however, did not make Cusk desist from actualising Medea in her version for Rupert Goold: only the plot changed and, rather than a psychopath, her contemporary Medea is a plausible and relatable feminist, much more relatable and plausible than Icke’s Agamemnon and Sarks’ own Medea.
When confronted with the new wave of Greek tragedies, we are bound to ask what these productions say about the present. To me, they speak of British theatre-makers’ obsession with “relevance” and “actuality,” as though what is “inactual” or out of fashion had no right to make it on to the stage, no hope of soliciting any interest or desirable emotion in spectators. “Not in vogue? Out of our theatres!” they say. What a paradoxical mission this is: to rid our stages of that which is not “of the time,” whilst simultaneously setting out to rediscover works that emerged out of an entirely different historical period. But what about the unshakable, untranslatable otherness of Greek tragedy vis-à-vis our contemporary world and theatrical tradition in Britain? What are we to make of Greek tragedy’s alienating devices, its difference, awkwardness, “inactuality”? The director’s task, it seems, has become a bit like that of a fashion magazine editor: pick what is à la mode, leave behind what is no longer de rigueur through the process of actualisation.
Now ask: is what is “inactual” necessarily “irrelevant”? I am not advocating reconstruction, or the pursuit of the chimera of historical “authenticity.” As Antoine Vitez wrote in 1966 about staging Sophocles’ Electra, “neither actualisation nor reconstruction. I want to find something else” (60). That third way may be found in productions that do not pursue the aesthetics of familiarity and are not afraid of unsettling audiences with “inactual” material. See, for instance, the work of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio.
To me, these London productions don’t speak about austerity, or about the debt crisis in Greece, although they may have been inspired by them. Rather, they speak to me about how dangerous it can be to exclude otherness from our stages. Refashioning and representing the past as though it had always been like the present is a bit like killing our future—or our children for that matter.
Cusk, Rachel. “Rachel Cusk: ‘Medea is not psychotic – she’s a realist.’” Telegraph. Daily Telegraph, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/actors/medea-rachel-cusk/>.
Rebellato, Dan. “Enter the Greeks.” 5 July 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Vitez, Antoine. Le théâtre des idées. Paris: Gallimard, 1991. Print.
*Dr Margherita Laera is a Lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she is the Director of the European Theatre Research Network, based in the School of Arts. She is the author of the monograph Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy (Peter Lang, 2013) and editor of Theatre and Adaptation: Return, Rewrite, Repeat (Bloomsbury, 2014).