Empowering Medea

Mary Beard describes Ben Power’s production of Medea “impressive.” But she wonders if the modernized version of the tragedy is Euripides.

“Euripides’ play is a complex work, raising difficult issues about gender, sincerity, self-interest and responsibility. But, although Medea ends up killing her sons (with all the terrible conflicts that must raise), it is emphatically not a play about domestic crime in anything like our sense of the word. Faithless and self-interested as Jason was, Medea herself was not simply a wife scorned, who turned in desperation to wreak dreadful violence on the tug-of-love children. She was the granddaughter of the Sun God (Helios), a witch from Colchis, on the terrifying margins of the Greek world, and already a murderess (in helping Jason steal the prized Golden Fleece from her father’s land, she had viciously hacked her brother to little pieces).”

Beard admits that “the play certainly contains some lines that are bound to resonate with a modern female audience. Medea’s lines in Power’s version affirming that it is ‘safer to fight / In a thousand awful battles [the original Greek has just “three” battles] / . . . Than once face the dangers of childbirth’ produced a knowing, supportive laugh from the National Theatre audience.”

But she finds it ill-suited to contemporary political uses: “like it or not, it does not have the kind of feminist agenda that Power tries to give it – sometimes at the cost of some very constructive re-working of the text (or, less charitably, at the cost of some wilful mistranslation).”

She finds the ending especially jarring: “the most radical change that Powers has introduced is in the very last scene of the play. In this production Medea walks off dragging the bodies of her children. It makes for a haunting and terrifying few minutes, with McCrory at her finest. But it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the climax of Euripides’ original, in which Medea is lifted high above the stage, in the chariot of her grandfather, the Sun. She has become almost a divine figure (taking the place of the deus ex machina who appeared at the end of so many Greek tragedies). For a modern audience, Power’s version seems no doubt much more appropriate, but it entirely reverses Euripides’ uncomfortably triumphalist point – wilfully removing some of the very strangeness that gives Greek tragedy its character. Modern readers and audiences have often preferred to forget this apotheosis of Medea at the end (the tortured child-killer is much easier for us to take in). But that is what Euripides gave her.”

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