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The Theatreguide.London Review

Medea
Gate Theatre   November 2015

Playwrights Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks have turned one of the most intensely tragic of Greek tragedies inside-out, and found a modern play of equal dramatic power. 

Because this version of Medea assumes knowledge of Euripides' original, I have to begin with a spoiler: after a string of unbearable betrayals and humiliations Medea is driven to the 'If I can't have them nobody can' murder of her children. 

Euripides' play is about Medea; Mulvany and Sarks' is about the children. 

Imagined as modern kids, Jasper and Leon have been sent off to their room while Mom and Dad argue downstairs. They fill their time doing kid things – shooting toy guns, tending the goldfish, playing games, messing up the room and then (at Mom's orders) cleaning it up, retelling the exciting tales of Dad's adventures, deciding whether they like “Dad's friend” (complete with quotations marks) and whether she's prettier than Mom. 

And the brilliant insight of the writers is that the boys do, think and talk about all these things on the same level. 

They see that something new is happening around them, but they can't make themselves more interested in it than in their toys or take it more seriously than the very serious rules of made-up games, while their grasshopper minds jump between the significant and trivial without being aware of any distinction. 

And therein lies the tragedy. 

Alfred Hitchcock once said about movie-making that you could show two men in a room and have a bomb go off, and get five seconds of surprise. But if you showed the audience the bomb ticking away under the table while the men chatted, you could get ten minutes or more of suspense. 

Until the last moments of the play all we see are two very normal boys doing very normal boy things. But it is because we know what is going to happen in the last moments of the play that everything up to then is coloured by almost unbearable pathos. 

And if, as some literary critics have posited, we can no longer feel high tragedy the way the ancient Greeks did, then intense pathos can be a powerful modern equivalent. 

Actress Emma Beattie is moving in her brief appearances as Medea, but the play belongs to the young actors playing her sons. Director Anne-Louise Sarks has cast two alternating pairs of boys, and I cannot imagine the other set topping Bobby Smalldridge and Keir Edkins-O'Brien. 

The lads, both with an admirable list of credits to their names already, combine naturalness and believability with discipline and professionalism so that you have to keep reminding yourself that they are actors playing fictional characters speaking memorised lines, and not just a couple of attractive kids just being kids. 

And of course director Sarks earns enormous credit for guiding them to such excellent performances. 

This Medea is only an hour long, and it might have been interesting to pair it with another modern take on Greek tragedy, to make a fuller evening. But it is one of the most of-a-piece and deeply involving hours of theatre you're likely to run into.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Medea - Gate  Theatre 2015

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