Rafael David Kohn’s excellent modern take on the tragic tale

Understanding Medea

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 18.03.2022

Medea is a new production by the Grand Théâtre on the occasion of this year’s geographical focus Greece. Director Rafael David Kohn revisits the tragedy in all its complexity and tries to unravel the motivations of one of the most shocking crimes in the history of Greek theatre: Medea committing infanticide. The idea to work on the tale came from main actress Brigitte Urhausen: “I have long had a fascination for the character, because she is so hard to understand. When I became a mother myself, Medea’s crime started to become something utterly unimaginable. What makes a woman do that?” Once again, the ensemble embarks on the search for Medea’s reasons.

Rafael Kohn returns to the foundation of Greek tragedy, which is based on the dichotomy between divine and human laws. Medea’s traits and actions might seem incomprehensible and bad in a Christian cultural context, however pride and revenge were key attributes of Greek Gods. Therefore the director and playwright, who writes in four languages including English, wrote an entirely new version of the play, modernizing the Euripides language, but not reinterpreting or reinventing the plot or the persona, nor putting Medea into today’s perspective. His version remains set in antique Greece 2 500 years ago and is based on the universality of the two main archetypal figures: Medea and Jason.

The tension of the play is centered around their juxtaposition and the contrast in their motives for oath breaking, kinslaying and murdering. The dialogues and monologues are set, after Euripides, in the privacy of their home, and unravel the tragic tale of a woman who, out of love and passion, betrayed her father, her family and her homeland and committed murder. Jason is responsible for these crimes as well, but he lets Medea and her children down mercilessly and prepares to marry the princess Kreusa, thereby breaking his oath. He tries to justify himself by saying that he is marrying a princess in order to improve the social status of his children. Meanwhile, proud Medea longs for revenge and is prepared to hurt him by murdering their children, and feels completely justified in doing so.

Medea’s history, the oath breaking as a cardinal sin, as well as her social status as a banished refugee, are key elements in understanding the family murder she commits in the play. Medea is a foreigner, who believes that her greatest mistake was to trust a Greek, while Jason, after the death of their children, says that no Greek woman would ever have committed such a crime. These reflections on national belonging add yet another layer to the reading of the story.

Upon entering the dark studio hall of the Grand Théâtre, the audience perceives the silhouettes of the players on stage. Anouk Schiltz’ masterful stage design is both sober and complex, thereby complementing Rafael Kohn’s version without distracting from the essential text. The stage is a universe, with a floor covered in sand and high walls covered in dark animal skins. A golden felt is hung over it all, reminding the audience of the prehistory of the play. There are no effects and barely any background sounds, except for a rhythmic drumming that accompanies the unfolding of events.

Experiencing a play in English is rather rare in Luxembourgish theatres, however it allows for a more universal access to the play and also attracts an international audience. A truly international cast rehearsed Medea for seven weeks. And while quite a few actors gave convincing performances – e.g. Whitney Fortmueller and Konstantin Rommelfangen – it was Brigitte Urhausen’s and Nicholas Monu’s performances as Medea and Jason that were central to the success of the play. They still have tender feelings for each other and their story shows the how close love and hate can reside in matters of the heart. Urhausen excelled at performing Medea’s monologue and her struggle as a mother before killing her children. Why did she suffer giving birth? Who will be standing at her grave one day? Driven by divine vengeance, she leaves her humane qualms behind. She takes the masks off her children’s faces, an elegant solution for staging the infanticide. She takes away their faces. In the end both Medea and Jason remain true to their convictions, as Medea evokes the Gods. You hurt me – I’ll hurt you more! The Gods know who struck first. Rafael David Kohn’s precise language is reduced to the absolute essence of what needs to be said. Or as Brigitte Urhausen puts it: “Every sentence spoken on stage carries weight.”

Anastasia Chaguidouline
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