Whatever alchemy powers the ongoing collaboration between director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw has is as potent as ever: Their new “Medea” is as risky as it is riveting and blows a huge gust of fresh air through the Abbey Theater, which still tends toward over-reverent takes on the classics. This production is aggressively contemporary in both look and language and is dominated by a simply astonishing performance from Shaw, who captures all the ambiguities of the title character — her Medea is as appealing as she is horrifying, as passionate as she is brutal.
Not all of Warner and Shaw’s choices work, and more attention has clearly been paid to the central performance than any of the others, but overall this “Medea” makes for a stunning night’s viewing. An ongoing life for the production beyond its limited Abbey run would be richly deserved and seems likely — there are both British and French co-producers already on board.
There is an emphasis overall on drawing the audience into a visceral, intimate relationship with the action and with the characters’ emotional experience. Steps descend from the playing area to the orchestra-level seating, and ample use is made of the aisles for entrances and exits. The chorus’ direct address of the audience thus comes off as a further extension of this intimacy, and Warner’s decision to have the chorus speak individually rather than in unison keeps the atmosphere contemporary.
Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s excellent 1994 translation adds hugely to this sense of immediacy, combining contemporary idioms in the dialogue with subtly heightened language for passages of description.
Tom Pye’s settings are brutally beautiful: A Plexiglas wall delineates the back of the playing area, through which the distressed brick of the theater’s actual back wall is visible, forming a horizontal corridor for entrances and exits, and, later on, a site for Medea’s partially visible murder of her sons. A large pool center stage is surrounded by a grill through which light shines from below — this is Medea’s subterranean lair from which, when the play begins, we can hear the mingled cacophony of her shouts and pop music on the radio.
Fiona Bell as the nurse and Garrett Keogh as the tutor provide the initial exposition ably enough, but the production doesn’t really kick in until Shaw enters, unexpectedly calm and presentable in a beautiful, form-fitting black dress and pumps, the society-wife garb instantly setting her off as outsider against the shrouded female chorus. Shaw’s performances always emanate a fierce, active intelligence, and here she allows us not only into her thought patterns but into her wildly shifting emotional state as well. “My lovely life is lost,” she intones thoughtfully in her first moments on stage; “I want to die.” The production takes us painstakingly through every twist and turn of her psychological journey from suicidal wife to murderous mother.
Shaw’s wandering and lurching around the stage largely makes sense as the actions of a woman who is out of place in both body and spirit, but there are moments when she still seems to be trying to make sense of some over-busy, over-proppy bits of direction — picking up and playing with the children’s toys that are strewn over the stage, physicalizing ideas and actions she describes in words; it feels like a performance that still has room to grow.
Indeed all the performers seem still to be finding their feet. Northern Irishman Patrick O’Kane, who seems almost overnight to have become the Abbey’s leading man of choice, has the tendency to turn in twitchy, overplayed performances if he is not held in check by a director (as was the case with his last appearance, in Conall Morrison’s disappointing production of Tom Murphy’s “The House”). As Jason, this volatility works almost totally in O’Kane’s favor, since the character is nearly always boiling over with rage and passion when he’s onstage. His quieter, anguished moments as he contemplates the carnage at the end of the play lack the same conviction and power.
Daringly, Warner has cast a black actor with a heavy Jamaican accent as the improbable deus ex machina figure Aegeus, but the sheer energy, conviction, and clarity of Leo Wringer’s performance during his brief time onstage staves off the initial impression that he’s been cast merely for the sake of his exotic (for Ireland) looks.
The Abbey is on something of a roll, internationally speaking: Its production of Frank McGuinness’ “Dolly West’s Kitchen” is playing to excellent reviews (much better, curiously, than those it received domestically) at the Old Vic; Hugh Leonard’s “Love in the Title” is playing in Singapore after a run in San Jose, Calif.; and the theater is preparing for its first co-production with the Edinburgh Intl. Festival on “The Barbaric Comedies,” a translation by McGuinness of a Spanish play directed by Catalan helmer Calixto Bieto. This “Medea” is yet more evidence of the Abbey’s increasing international profile: It is world-class stuff.