Review: Medeia by Dood Paard
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 16 October 2007
“They’re looking at us,” states an elderly theatre goer to his companion. “Who?” she replies. “The players.” This established, they both return to watching the watching players, waiting for action.
This audience conversation neatly framed the performers in Dood Paard’s quietly compelling re-visioning of Greek tragedy in Medeia. Those who present the tragedy for us, when both they and we are ready to begin, are only the players, only the workers on the scene. Rather than the grand tragic protagonists, full of sound and fury, they present only the chorus, the bit-players, the background commentators who come on to make sense of all the onstage doings that they can only bear witness to. When the protagonists Medea and Jason do appear, as they must in order for the tragedy to progress toward its inevitable and horrific conclusion, they appear as shadows of themselves, filtered through the chorus’ memory, whispered quotations rather than righteous declamations.
The performers stage the problem of tragic action in the contemporary moment; while tragedy certainly has not disappeared from the world, the available representational registers to account for its occurrence certainly have. What can be done in the face of such horror as infanticide, especially when it cannot be prevented? What can be done when the catastrophic ending so thoroughly haunts every beginning? “All the tears I cry today, I will cry again tomorrow,” the chorus lament, stuck in a cycle of eternal, ineffectual remembrance. They are “only the chorus – I cannot do. I can only speak. If you have something to say, you should say it.” And so they who have us to say, and are compelled to report it endlessly to no effect, continue to speak even though after so many repetitions their speaking has become quiet and surprisingly gentle. Their sound and fury has evaporated, and their reduced telling is all the more poignant and provocative for that.
The staging of the piece is remarkably simple – the three performers stand in a line, evenly spaced, and directly address the audience. They stand amidst a skeletal stage set up, a series of paper backdrops neatly folded in piles on the floor, with strings hanging down from a wooden grid in the roof. It strongly resembles a life-size marionette set up, with the movements of players always about to be controlled by an unseen offstage hand. The performers hoist up the first backdrop, stand in front of it to deliver the first section, tear down the backdrop, move downstage and repeat the process. Mirroring the tragic dramaturgy, the performance moves inevitably downstage, leaving the wreckage of past performances behind it as it does so.
Rooted to the spot, the players speak in a self-deprecating, gently ironic, and carefully orchestrated hesitancy that seemed reminiscent of the apparently-offhand mode adopted by Forced Entertainment performers, especially in work like Dirty Work (1998) and Speak Bitterness (1995). Dood Paard adopt this mode of performance for very different reasons however; like Forced Entertainment, they are deconstructing the ‘stuff’ of theatre, its representational conventions and material practices. However Dood Paard are far more specific in their investigation, directly interrogating the practice of staging Greek tragedy in a post-post modern world.
There’s always a sense in Medeia of struggling to speak, to find the right words to adequately describe what cannot be described, but must nonetheless be reported. Strikingly, Dood Paard attempt this while also drawing attention to the paucity of linguistic expressivity in contemporary culture – re-membering tragedy by resorting to pop lyrics. On the violence always bubbling beneath Medea’s love for Jason: “Love hurts. Love is a battlefield. Love is the most violent emotion. Love is the most emotional emotion.”
In between each of these downstage progressions, one of the performers pulls out a carousel slide projector and begins rapidly to show the images. The slides’ progression continues unstoppably, relentlessly, far beyond any apparent need or requirement. The slides just keep on coming, too fast to settle upon, too fast to make sense of, a blur of the surplus images of the ordinary life lived. First the slide presentation is engaging, even amusing. The next time, it’s irritating. The third time, it’s unsettling. The images are a chaotic jumble of traveller’s happy snaps, banal in the extreme, intimate yet anonymous. Stretched out over such duration however, the very ordinariness of these images becomes aggressive, unwanted, threatening. Like the figure of Medea to the woman of Corinth perhaps – possessing a too-forceful desire for love without end, desperately wanting a happily ever after that actually lasts forever. An eternal, frighteningly monolithic love; eternal and pure like the modern art famously preferred by Michael Fried – uncorrupted by the stench of time, avoiding the condition of theatre. A monument to love that can never crumble, captured in a perfect moment. Like the frozen happy memories of the slides, but in life.
Medea wants what both Jason and the pop song lyrics that filter their way into the performance text promised – love, tenderness, happiness and devotion, forever and ever. She wanted it so badly that she betrayed her own people, murdered her brother, and fled her homeland to get it. She expects forever to be forever. “Get over it”, Jason declares, “life goes on.” But in Medea’s eyes, no matter how many Obla-dees that pepper the dialogue, life does not simply ‘go on’ after her abandonment. At least not the lives of those that Jason loves, each of whom Medea brings to an end. “All the tears we weep today we will weep again tomorrow,” the chorus/players state matter-of-factly once again. They’ve wept excessively already. Simply going on from here is struggle enough. Tragedy here is the inescapable everyday, quietly harrowing.
Image taken from the Melbourne Festival website. Credits: Photo: Sanne Peper, Cast members L to R: Manja Topper and Oscar van Woensel