Review: Medea, Black Swan State Theatre Company (WA)

Jo Pickup

Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’s reimagining of the Greek tragedy turns its eye to Medea’s young sons.
Review: Medea, Black Swan State Theatre Company (WA)

Jesse Vakatini, Alexandria Steffensen and Jalen Hewitt. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

One could argue that Medea’s longevity is due to its universal and strangely relatable theme. In Euripides’ play, Medea takes the lives of her two young sons as the ultimate punishment for her husband who has left her for another woman. It forces us to consider how far we could go to settle scores after being profoundly wronged by another. It’s unnerving and destabilising in its unflinching gaze into the depths of the human condition.

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From another angle, the play has been viewed as a rather sexist tale which paints women as hysterical creatures who, when pushed, bear little control over their extreme emotions which inevitably lead them to acts of mass destruction.

Thankfully, in the hands of Australian playwrights Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, Medea’s story focuses less on a woman enraged, and instead turns its eye to two characters largely absent from the original. Medea’s young sons, Leon and Jasper, are the protagonists in this version, and it is a profound experience to see the world through their eyes in the lead-up to what we know will be their tragic end.

From the outset, we sit with these young brothers as they chat and play in their bedroom. The set, designed by Bryan Woltjen and realised by Tyler Hill, is wonderfully realistic, and makes us feel like we are right there with the boys amongst their Lego, toy guns and galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars.

‘I’ll fart in your face... I’ll do it!’ Jasper threatens, in one of many lines that echo the lovable rough and tumble of Australian family life.

As the boys continue to spar and make fun under the warm glow of Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting, with resonant fragments of lullaby sounds (by Melanie Robinson) filtered in, we are drawn ever-closer into scenes which on the surface look safe and comfortable but are in fact contaminated by noises from the other room and snippets of information about ‘friends’ of their parents.

In this way, we are forced to confront the ‘smaller’ tragic elements that are routinely overlooked in countless remakes of this play: the tragedies that unfold for children stuck in the middle of their parents’ breakdowns; the tragedies of their being present, yet never in control of the way things play out. These sentiments cut deep into current themes and are reminders of how often the young person’s voice goes unnoticed.

On opening night, debut youth actors Jalen Hewitt (Jasper) and Jesse Vakatini (Leon) inhabited their roles with admirable gusto, and while it feels unfair to criticise budding talent, in this performance it was obvious they were newcomers to the stage. When actor Alexandria Steffensen (in the role of Medea) joined them intermittently she brought necessary gravitas to the scenes. Her eyes flashed around the bedroom as she whisked her body across the space with a manic air that softened only when she knelt close beside her boys. In these quiet moments we were brought painfully near to the agony underlying the torturous decision she was about to make.

Overall, Director Sally Richardson, in collaboration with her creative team and commissioning partners Black Swan and WA Youth Theatre Company, has sculpted this work into something that’s clever in detail and gracious in spirit. This Medea is fresh-faced and relatable to the modern day, and as a new staging of Mulvany and Sarks’s script (first published in 2012), it’s a production that will surely develop further over its Perth season, and leave audiences pausing for thought on the power of the seemingly small voices in our lives.

3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Medea
A Black Swan collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company
by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks
Original concept by Anne-Louise Sarks after Euripides
Director: Sally Richardson
Cast: Jalen Hewitt, Lachlan Ives, Jack Molloy, Alexandria Steffensen and Jesse Vakatini
8-25 August 2019
State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth WA
Tickets $35-$55

About the author

Jo Pickup is an arts writer & manager based in Perth. She has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian Newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for WA arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre and STRUT dance, in roles such as Producer, Program Manager & Communications Manager.