The Potency of Medea

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Medea, Written in Rage (by Jean René Lemoine, translated and directed for the stage by Neil Bartlett): music and sound design by Phil Von, costumes by Mr Pearl and featuring François Testory. And What? Queer. Arts. Festival at The Place, London, 5.10.2017. (JB)

Medea-c-Manuel-Vason-1 (1)
Medea (François Testory) (c) Manuel Vason

Opera is a pretty potent mix: poetry, prose (just a pinch or two sometimes), rhythmic and melodic hypnosis, singing, talking (not too much), dancing, mime, costume and set design, instrumentation, team spirit (of sometimes conflicting interests, whoops!) make-believe, not to mention the all-powerful disbelief, and other forays into other mischiefs. Stir myth into this mix and necessity will require some control over the resulting intensities. Control while not appearing to have control; for control sours the whole pot.

Cherubini, the Florentine composer, wrote an opera on Medea. I have never forgiven Francesco Siciliani for resurrecting this trash for Maria Callas, when he was artistic director at the Florence Opera. True, Callas was so extraordinary, that the opera actually worked with her. But three decades later, in the same theatre, I heard the great Shirley Verrett in the opera. I was bored blue and had to leave at the first interval. Callas later gave us the most memorable Medea ever, in her collaboration with her friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy’s leading poet, turned film-maker. I sat in on some of their discussions for this masterpiece. They both knew that in cinema, less is more, just as it is in theatre. Let the myth speak for itself. Get out of its way, so to speak.

It’s a pleasure to report that Neil Bartlett and his team (and team is what this show is all about) have mostly avoided the pit into which Cherubini fell. My appetite was already aroused by Bartlett’s press release note: Lemoine makes Medea a stranger in her own country who seeks to flee from the asphyxiation of family bonds through carnal union with her brother and in the physical bedazzlement of her encounter with Jason, the ravisher and violator. Marginalisation, isolation and exile are the themes. Elsewhere, the press release talks about a startling reimagining of the Greek legend Medea as a genderless, stateless and violently transgressive contemporary LGBTQ figure.

I had better add that I have been following the career of François Testory since I saw him auditioning as a nineteen-year old for Lindsay Kemp’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Rome, freshly graduated from Maurice Béjart’s school in which that maestro had declared François to have that rare combination of the perfect body and the perfect mind-set to go with it. That statement came in a documentary about the Mudra School which I saw at the house of the Belgian cultural attaché, the day after I had seen the audition.

A couple of nights later at supper with Lindsay Kemp, I mentioned how impressive I had found the French boy, without reference to the documentary. Lindsay was a bit sniffy. But in fairness, this was before he’d seen François without clothes. When he did, he appointed the boy his choreographer and leading dancer.

François is a friend of the poet, playwright, and actor Jean René Lemione, a French citizen, born in Haiti in 1959 and resident in Paris since 1989, where François was greatly moved when he saw the author perform Medea, Written in Rage. He wanted to perform it himself in his adopted language of English and asked Neil Bartlett if he would translate the performance poem and also direct the play.

Octavio Paz used to say that poems should be translated into other languages, because you would invariably end up with another poem in the new language, which in some cases, would be superior to the original. He cites Elizabeth Bishop’s translations of some of his own poems into English. Bishop is not on record saying what she thought of Paz’s translations of her poems into Spanish.

I haven’t seen Lemoine’s French poem but I was hoping that Neil Bartlett would have said something about his translation at the promised press introduction to the show. That introduction didn’t take place. There was, however a friendly, welcoming drinks party for the press in the best London Contemporary Dance hospitality traditions, at which I was pleased to learn that the indefatigable Janet ‘Mop’ Eager was still active on the LCD board, though no longer its general manager.

The show was followed, however by a Q&A session with the creative team and the audience.

I have been absorbed by myths, even inventing them, before I knew what a myth was. However, it appeared that Lemione had an agenda which took him outside myth. Myth always asks unanswerable questions, the answers to which are other unanswerable questions. The value is in the quality of the questions arising. But there were moments when Lemione (or Bartlett’s translation) came uncomfortably close to coming up with answers, and so reducing the poetry to the level of an undergraduate essay on gender studies.

Yes, Medea was an outsider, and Lemoine explored this with its poetic questions. But there were also moments when the outsider was politicised with a crudity lower than Theresa May’s. (While Mrs May has always earned political mileage from outsiders, her recent address to the Tory Party conference will certainly go down in political history as the greatest debacle ever. Even Rossini’s comic operas don’t manage to rise to that level of farce.)

Farce is immense fun, especially in an “inappropriate” context, but I strongly dispute whether it has any value in mythological probings.

François said that the greatest challenge he had to face was learning eighty minutes of spoken text in English. And by heart he gasped in disbelief, during a phone call. I told him it was all a question of making the text his own, of feeling the gestures which accompanied the words, so that they became part of his person. That reminded me of an episode which Laurence Olivier told me. He received a call from the Prime Minister who asked if she might pass by to see him. Margaret Thatcher arrived and explained that she was receiving complaints that her voice was too shrill; was there anything she could do about this?  Larry paused. The voice you use to say something is tied up with what it is you have to say, he said. Another pause. Why does all communication take place in the pauses? The Iron Lady then said, Thank you. I think you’ve told me what I need to know. A week later he received a call asking him if he would accept a peerage.

The production goes on tour to give better voice to the And What? Queer. Arts. Festival (see dates at the end of this piece). François thought he had got under the skin of Medea’s sexuality. But a young man at Q&A time didn’t think so. That brought out a bit of François’ autobiography which he had felt he had reproduced. He said in puberty, about the age of fourteen, he had felt embarrassing conflict in not being able to deliver what those closest to him expected him to deliver as a “man”; a conflict which he had never resolved and one he still keenly felt.

Many of the venues for the tour are pocket handkerchief size, so the choreography has to be limited to gestures within that restriction. But the restriction also becomes an asset in that it naturally ups the stakes of the drama’s intensity. I recall Lindsay Kemp being asked by an Italian journalist what he thought of Shakespeare. Well, it’s all right, said Lindsay, but there really are too many words. 

You can, of course, create space through lighting. And Chanine Yavaran did just that, in part with the dry ice fog. This would doubtless also work better on stages smaller than The Place.

Phil Von’s soundscape envelops the show beautifully; it will also doubtless vary from place to place. There are moments where the Medea monologue becomes a duet with the two “voices”, Medea and the soundscape, talking to one another, then the shocking loneliness of Medea herself after her encounters with the world. Mr Von uses electronic sound as well as traditional instruments, kept very busy by his one-man band.

Jack Buckley

Medea, Written in Rage tours to Cambridge Junction – 11 October, Norwich Arts Centre – 18 October, Pavilion Dance Bournemouth – 20 October, Hull Truck Theatre Hull – 24-25 October, Unity Theatre, Homotopia Festival, Liverpool – 1 November, Lancaster Arts, University of Lancaster – 31st October & Birmingham Repertory Theatre – 17-18 November

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