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Medea Goes To Hollywood

Fiona Shaw Stars in Abbey Theatre’s Medea

By Bence Olveczky

Staff Writer

Abbey Theatre’s Medea

Wilbur Theatre

Oct. 23 - Nov. 3

In this fearful autumn crowded with serial killers and threats of mass murder, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre reminds us that murderous revenge has been part of the human repertoire for a long, long time. Their Medea, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, is a modern reinterpretation of Euripides’ 2500-year-old tragedy that successfully transplants this timeless tale into our vain and self-obsessed 21st century.

Medea has it against her for sure. After giving up a secure life back home to follow her husband Jason to the land of opportunities (Corinth), she is betrayed by her beloved, who promptly goes off with the local princess. After much despair and agony, and three cold-blooded killings later, Medea reunites with Jason in an awkward embrace next to a pool filled with the blood of their children. Medea has had her ruinous revenge.

Director Deborah Warner wanted to make the play into a story about modern day celebrities and their various psychiatric pathologies; it is easy to see Medea as the wife of a rising Hollywood star (think Antonio Banderas) who uproots his family in order to hit the big time. Vanity and the promise of fame and fortune are what drives Jason to leave his wife for the strategic marriage (think Melanie Griffith) that he hopes will pave his way. As she clings to her idea of romantic love and self-sacrifice, Medea’s world quickly disintegrates, and with nothing left to lose, she uses her own offspring as a bestial tool with which to punish her unfaithful husband.

What makes this production of Medea stand out is Fiona Shaw, who, unlike the erratic character she plays, is in full control of her audience. She mixes naÏvetÉ and vulnerability with a devastating and chilling cynicism, pulling off the stunt of portraying this seemingly mad and evil woman -- a perfect fodder for a Dateline special on women serial killers -- as a very human being.

Jonathan Cake plays Jason, an arrogant playboy. His character’s lack of complexity and charm makes Medea’s obsession with this one-dimensional bore seem rather tenuous and unbelievable, amounting to one of the show’s few flaws.

The production is much helped by designer Tom Pye’s beautifully simple set and Deborah Warner’s theatrical cunningness and experience. The barren and uninviting stage resembles a construction site with pre-molded concrete blocks and windows to be installed. Clearly, the doomed pair are new arrivals in the process of creating their dream home when their relationship is derailed. Children’s toys, a plastic gun and a first-aid kit among them, are strewn around the stage and act as symbolic icons for Medea’s mad meanderings.

But the most haunting moment of the show is the terrible infanticide. Murder, like sex, is notoriously difficult to stage without it looking construed, forced, and extremely theatrical. In this Irish “Medea,” however, as Fiona Shaw goes after her children, the audience is gasping for air, literally crying out for the madness to end. It doesn’t, and when the two former lovers sit peacefully by the bloodied pool in the show’s final scene, there is no redemption or closure, just a pervading sense of helplessness and futility.

The one-and-a-half-hour show is a devastating and gut-wrenching theatrical descent into the dark sides of human existence, but it is also a reminder that many horrific human acts are borne out of desperate situations, giving credence to the idea that there are no bad people but only good people in bad situations.