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Review: Medea at Billie Brown Theatre

Review by Sarah Skubala

 

Queensland Theatre have ramped up the drama with its latest offering Medea, a modern re-imaging based on the ancient Greek tragedy. The story has been flipped and is told from the perspective of Medea’s two young sons, with the audience bearing witness to the last 70 minutes of their young lives, making for a compelling theatrical experience.

 

Writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks won an AWGIE for their adaptation which premiered in 2012 at Belvoir St Theatre. It went on to win five Sydney Theatre Awards including Best Mainstage Production and Best New Australian Work and has since toured the world.

 

QT’s Associate Artistic Director (Programming) Daniel Evans has put together an edge-of-your-seat production that offers audiences a chance rarely experienced in the theatre to see the world through its two young protagonists, namely 10-year-old Jasper, played by Felix Pearn, and 12-year-old Leon, played by Orlando Dunn-Mara. Rounding out the cast is Helen Cassidy as their mother in the title role.

 

The set, designed by Chloe Greaves, is a stroke of genius. The boys are locked in their bedroom, and to create the feeling of being trapped, she’s entombed the entire space behind glass in a nod to Ancient Greek customs. The fourth wall was sealed up, and just like zoo animals in their enclosure, we could see them, but could they see us? Fittingly, the bedroom contained a working fish tank with two exotic fish, acting as a tank within a tank.

 

The attention to detail in the bedroom was incredible and included a working ceiling fan, downlights, an air conditioning wall unit, and a built-in robe. The lived-in touches were visually fantastic and added to the hyper-realism, from the pinned-up athletics carnival ribbons to the classic picture books in the wall unit. Each of the boys’ sleeping areas reflected their interests, Jasper clearly loved animals and Leon was into sport and space. The walls were painted a classic sky blue dotted with white stars. Matt Scott’s lighting design was magical, especially once the lights went out, and it’s worth leaving all the details about that as a surprise.

 

Mike Willmett’s sound design perfectly underscored the drama, and I am still wondering whether anyone else heard those Brisbane bird noises, given that they are such a normal part of the real-life suburban soundtrack that we rarely notice them.

 

Daniel Evans and his team brought out wonderful performances from the young cast. Pearn, aged 10, and Dunn-Mara, age 13, had a natural and believable rapport as brothers. They oscillated between scrapping with each other and supporting each other in a very realistic way. Leon, as the older brother, was clearly more aware of the ways of the world and idolised his warrior father, while Jasper provided the pathos as a little boy living his life in all its innocence and messiness. Pearn hit his moments of comedy brilliantly, and there were many, including parodying his Dad’s ‘friend’ who he says looks like a ‘chicken in lipstick.’ It was an extraordinary feat for the boys to carry such a show on their young shoulders, and Evans is to be congratulated for taking this creative risk.

 

Cassidy’s intermittent appearances as Medea were integral to the drama, and her costuming, also by Greaves, was fitting: messy hair and track pants. We first meet her bursting into the room with a tear-stained face to announce that the boys are going to live with their father. She then slowly but surely sets her revenge plan in place, preparing a gift to send to their Dad’s ‘friend,’ with the boys astutely noting that she smells like chemicals.

 

The final scene between Medea and her sons was confronting and chilling but was brilliantly staged. Medea’s motivation to take the lives of her two young sons is open to interpretation, depending on how familiar one is with the original text. Was this a mercy killing? Were the boys about to die anyway at the hands of their father, and was this the most painless and humane way to go, to be taken by the one who loved them the most? Or was this an act of a mentally disturbed woman who didn’t want to lose her sons to their father? Either way, Jasper and Leon’s deaths are shocking and senseless and highlight how tragically children can be used as pawns when marriages break down.

 

In an emotional moment, the cast came out of the ‘bubble’ for the bows, and, joined by the alternate cast of boys, received a well-deserved standing ovation. Medea is an extraordinary theatrical experience and is simply an unmissable night at the theatre.

Image Credit: David Kelly

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