Is Medea, that famous murderous mama of Greek lore, a victim or a monster? The paradox presented by Deborah Warner's visceral staging of Euripides' tragedy is that she is unquestionably both.

Is Medea, that famous murderous mama of Greek lore, a victim or a monster? The paradox presented by Deborah Warner’s visceral staging of Euripides’ tragedy is that she is unquestionably both. Even more disconcertingly, Fiona Shaw’s towering performance in the title role makes it clear that Medea is a contemporary human being, too, a painfully real if rarely reasonable woman.

Shaw and Warner have won acclaim for many of their previous collaborations, but it is hard to imagine them bettering their achievement here. Digging into the play with equal parts wit, intelligence and sensuality, they unleash its molten emotional core, revealing deep seams of feeling that most productions leave buried beneath layers of tradition. This is the rare staging of a Greek tragedy that speaks to us with utter immediacy and yet provides the kind of emotional catharsis that once defined the form. Previously seen at Dublin’s Abbey Theater and in the West End, the production plays just a dozen performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It should, by rights, move on to Broadway: It could single-handedly raise the stature — not to mention the temperature — of the new season.

The staging is clean and contemporary. In her floral slip dress and sweatshirt, Medea might have walked in off a Brooklyn boulevard. The chorus suggests an international collection of very average women: soccer moms from the Balkans, say. The hunky blond Jason, in his form-fitting T-shirt and jeans, is a walking Gap ad. And yet the effect is not self-conscious but casual: Warner and Shaw simply take it for granted that this story is happening in the here and now, to a woman we might know in a place we almost recognize. (Tom Pye’s set, with massive glass doors fronting a wall of cinderblocks, is both coolly chic and ominous.)

Accordingly, Shaw’s Medea speaks in a language laced with ironic inflection, tossing out the occasional sarcastic aside. She talks bitterly of her status as Jason’s “souvenir from foreign parts” and moves slowly, in her opening monologues, from a quietly seething anger to torrents of outrage. The actress’s phrasing is matchlessly smart and incisive — every word seems to cut through the air — and the translation used, by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, is superb. In its elegance and concision it is properly classical, and yet the rhythms and vocabulary are our own, not the rarefied versions that can keep us at a distance in many productions of ancient plays.

The clarity of the words serves to illuminate the play’s complexity, which hits us with revelatory force here. It is impossible not to share this woman’s white-hot outrage at her misuse at the hands of a husband who fathered her two children and made use of her sorcery for protection. And when Kreon (Struan Rodger), the ruler whose daughter Jason plans to marry, brutally humiliates Medea, her sense of helplessness as a woman and a foreigner is made vividly clear. The pitiful way she must subjugate herself before this man is agony to watch.

But when the reviled Jason arrives, his explanations of his behavior are put forth with a directness that strikes home: Played with powerful conviction to match Shaw’s, Jonathan Cake’s Jason is always reasonable where Medea is ragged with rage; and reason, in the volatile, emotionally violent context Medea whips up around herself, has a forceful attraction.

What’s more, Jason’s explanation — that he still loves Medea, and sees his alliance with Kreon’s daughter merely as a way of assuring the safety of all of them — is given powerful credence by the undeniable physical attraction they show for each other. Medea, who stalks the stage like a feral cat, goes suddenly limp when Jason wraps her in his arms, and he cannot resist touching her with more tenderness than violence even after witnessing the carnage she has wrought. We do indeed see physical love here as both a blessing and a curse, but above all we witness it with an actuality that is absent from most productions.

Intelligence is always glittering in the recesses of her dark eyes, but it’s the volcanic force of Medea’s feelings — in all their contradictions — that Shaw communicates so powerfully. There is no doubting that her Medea is in sexual thrall to Jason, but she also despises him with equal conviction; she loves her children with all the instincts of a mother — the manner in which she casually fondles them and playfully pinches their cheeks is exactly that of a woman who doesn’t have to convince herself of her affection — but she can coolly plan to sacrifice them when the taste of vengeance, that most intoxicating of emotional elixirs, is on her tongue. Most chillingly, Shaw clarifies the turning point when Medea realizes that revenge will never still the raging fire in her heart, but she must follow through on her plan anyway — to save her sons from tortures worse than death at the hands of a loving mother.

The bloody act is depicted with perhaps a rather too thick overlay of theatrical effects — Mel Mercier’s soundscape goes into overdrive, and Peter Mumford’s haunting lighting flashes away — and one might take issue with some of the busy behavior designed for the chorus. But such incidental flaws have minimal effect on the overall impact of the production. At each moment Shaw’s Medea is legibly human, unsettlingly authentic in a way that gets under the skin and cannot be forgotten.

Another paradox: “Medea” should leave us with a feeling of revulsion at the messiness of emotion, the wanton destructiveness it can unleash. And rationally it does: But how to explain the powerful pleasure of having our own feelings so deeply engaged? How to explain the sense of exaltation that can follow upon such a harrowing evening of theater? Oh yeah: The Greeks had a word for it — it’s that catharsis stuff.


Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater; 900 seats; $65 top

  • Production: A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation of the Abbey Theater production of the play in one act by Euripides, translated by Kenneth McLeish, Frederic Raphael. Directed by Deborah Warner.
  • Crew: Set, Tom Pyle; costumes, Jacqueline Durran; lighting, Peter Mumford, Michael Gunning; sound, Mel Mercier, David Meschter. Opened, reviewed Oct. 2, 2002. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
  • Cast: Nurse - Siobhan McCarthy Tutor - Robin Laing Chorus - Kirsten Campbell, Joyce Henderson, Rachel Isaac, Pauline Lynch, Susan Salmon Medea - Fiona Shaw Kreon - Struan Rodger Jason - Jonathan Cake Aegeus - Joseph Mydell Messenger - Derek Hutchinson