Medea is the earliest of Euripides’ surviving tragedies, having been first produced at Athens in 431 bce. It reflects the ‘unities’ of classic Greek drama: the action proceeds in a single location and in ‘real time’, avoiding sub-plots or other diversions from a densely compressed narrative. The play centres on the tale of a sorcerer-princess from a remote barbarian land whose murderous and ruthless conduct profoundly challenges the social and moral conventions of the city-states of Greece. During little more than an hour on stage, the actor playing Medea is required to demonstrate an extraordinary range of emotions as this grand-daughter of the Sun God takes revenge upon the all-too-mortal unfaithfulness of Jason. But his character too offers complexity, especially as he strives to convince us that his new marriage to a princess of Corinth is the wisest way in which to reduce the perils of exile and thus to defend the interests both of Medea and of the children that she has borne him. Like Jason, both Kreon and Aigeus are also depicted as struggling to frame prudent responses to the challenge of Medea as an alien and supernatural force. The first of these kings makes a literally fatal underestimation of her destructive power: ‘One more day is yours. Too little time, I’m sure, to work the spells I dread.’ As for Aigeus, it is the promise of a magical cure for his childlessness which tempts him into guaranteeing upon oath that, regardless of Medea’s crimes, she will escape punishment and enjoy refuge even within the very city of the drama’s first audience. Among the other notable achievements of the play is Euripides’ decision to give to a mere servant of Jason one of the most remarkable passages in ancient Athenian drama – one that constitutes virtually a play within a play. Nor should we overlook the pivotal role accorded to the Chorus of Corinthian Women, whose commentary is made to shift so constantly and subtly between empathy and dispassion.
Our Fringe production of this masterpiece has certain distinctive features. Members of the company have been working both with masks and with puppets. We have also added to the Euripidean text a brief modern prologue outlining what the first hearers of the play would have known already of the Medean myth up to the point when the stage-action itself begins. Moreover, in seeking to segregate our audience by gender, we have aimed at highlighting a tension between male and female perceptions that is far from being a twenty-first century distortion of this drama. Rather, such difference of view was something that formed a fundamental feature of Medea from the outset. No clear evidence survives of women being permitted even to attend Greek tragedy of this era, let alone being allowed to overthrow the male monopoly of acting roles. Despite this, Euripides had courage enough to place in the mouths of his pseudo-female Chorus the observation that, ‘If women had a voice...we’d sing of men’s outrageousness.’ Such a sentiment illustrates the fact that, nearly two and half millennia ago, he crafted in Medea a drama which was not only deeply horrific but sharply subversive too.