Flowers in the Attic
The Gate’s opening salvo for its 2020 season, "Medea," signals something of a shift. Where recent years have seen a direct challenge to the under representation of women in Irish theatre, particularly playwrights and directors, "Medea" delivers an all female production team; set, music, lights, writers, director, associate director. Power sharing or power shifting, the first four productions of The Gate’s 2020 Season see three of its four plays written by women, and all four being helmed by women directors. Choices already making for interesting conversations. Which might detract from another conversation stuttering to take place, sparked by a disquieting and thought provoking "Medea" by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, from an original concept by Sarks. Premiering to huge acclaim in Sydney in 2013, "Medea" shifts perspective to the children at the centre of Euripides’ tragedy. Speaking directly to the lived experience of Ireland’s first and second generation of divorcees still figuring out how to minimise the impact of divorce on children. Many of whom are left dealing with adult sized feelings in an adult sized world where the adults have lost their footing. Yet despite this shift in perspective, the only real feelings given anything like a voice in "Medea" belong to Medea. Making the hugely engaging performances from its incredibly brave young actors all that more impressive.
No sooner has the curtain risen than ancient Greece is essentially kicked to touch by a privileged child’s bedroom of the 21st century. Indeed, Euripides' tale of a wife scorned by a husband leaving her for another woman is reduced to backstory backwash, the foreground focusing on the experiences of their two young sons; the pestering younger brother Jasper, and his protective older brother, Leon. Locked in an attic while the adults argue it out, some wonderful naturalised interactions evoke the innocence and ignorance of childhood as both young boys talk out loud trying to think through the adult world beyond the keyhole. Meanwhile death and dying is forever being foreshadowed, from talk of exploding fish to playfully practicing death scenes. Some brief cameos from Medea add some much needed tension as what started out as Greek tragedy gradually begins to resemble Flowers in the Attic. Virginia Andrews chilling 1979 novel in which children locked in an attic are being poisoned by their mother. Which Alyson Cummins' detailed attic design ably reinforces. Some uncomfortable truths, such as Leon thinking Daddy’s new friend is prettier than Mammy, skirt close to making the experience visceral as a disturbed Medea struggles with her concealed tortures. But it’s the knowledge of what ultimately lies in wait that lends "Medea" its true tension, thriving on anticipation of the tragedy to come.
Throughout, Mulvany and Sarks make no easy accommodation to the potential for darkness in a mother’s love, or serve up easy dismissals of the love of a father for his children, or they for him. Something director Oonagh Murphy handles superbly, pushing both script and performers to some powerful and poignant moments, often stronger for being understated. Yet while Mulvany and Sarks talk safely about unsafe things, it sometimes becomes too safe. Turning in terrifically impressive performances, Oscar Butler as Leon (rotating with Elijah O’Sullivan) is wonderfully compelling as the big brother watching out for his younger sibling, trying to protect him from dangers he himself can’t fully articulate. Jude Lynch as Jasper, (rotating with Luke O’Donoghue) a pestering ball of energy with a wild imagination is absolutely terrific. Both Jasper and Leon are utterly adorable as two well behaved, compliant children walking blindly, and unquestioning, to their doom. Yet if their cuteness heightens them as innocent victims, it also silences them. Revisioning Medea from the children’s perspective while omitting, or sanitising, their intense, emotional confusion sees it often ring hollow. Ceding Leon a single moment of anger so safely handled it looks more like a trope than a truth. Even allowing for children putting the needs of their parents first and being endlessly eager to please, here it becomes their only defining attribute, neatly sidestepping the ugly mess of their own emotions. The end result ensuring the tragedy of both well behaved children positions them as page boys to Medea’s larger tragedy. Their own pains often disquietingly unspoken. Touched upon but never explored. Their lips still sealed.
Only an inspired Eileen Walsh, offering an extended sketch of "Medea," brings a true sense of the distraught, tortured anguish experienced as a family falls apart, hinting at what she imagines she's protecting her children from. If Mulvany and Sarks leave you no wiser as to who, what, or why "Medea" is, Walsh ensures there’s no denying that she is. Her litany of loves delivered to an open door a desolate cry, steeped in psychological simplicity whilst calling out to the eternal of Cummins' star studded sky. Throughout, Murphy’s directorial naturalism makes the horror all the more immediate for being utterly recognisable. Whilst making similar tragedies, such as the recent tragedy in Newcastle, feel uncomfortably close to home.
In "Medea," Greek tragedy is viewed through a fractured Nickelodeon, Disney Club lens, where emotionally sanitised, well behaved children never complain even as they're locked in their room and have to piss in their own clothes. If their deaths remain brutally disturbing, they too are kept at something of a safe distance, allowing the audience to fill in the emotional blanks, or project their own. As a way of beginning the much needed conversation on the pains adults can inflict on children, “Medea” is a terrific place to start. But when it comes to dealing with the wild bloody mess of emotions that divorce, or worse, can inflict on children, its cute factor ensures "Medea" feels more like Medea's well behaved second cousin. Playing for safety even while being wonderfully brave, “Medea” still has a power to provoke and disturb, even if doesn’t achieve all it set out to.
"Medea" by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, from an original concept by Anne-Louise Sarks, runs at the Gate Theatre until February 22.
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.