After a whole two weeks of some excellent and some other not-so-excellent theatre, ‘Medea and its Double seemed a fitting finale, with truly spectacular production values to boot. The Greek tragedy, here set to suit Eastern sensibilities, recounts the ancient myth of the betrayed and vengeful Medea, killing her two sons and her lover, Jason’s new royal wife, to avenge her insult. The play had a lot going in its favour; but most importantly, a very receptive audience.
Add to that some fantastic acting, great music woven seamlessly into the script, the its initial lighter moments (including the much-applauded Korean-ised rendering of ‘lakdi ki gaati, gaati pe ghoda’)… ‘Medea …’ proved to be an enjoyable 60 minutes, down to the last bow.
The flaws? Well, a rather perplexing conclusion to the story was a letdown. Besides, the reason why the personal pronoun was dropped and a rather frosty ‘Its’ used in the revised title also seems unclear. And if the surtitles had been suspended a wee bit lower, the eager young crowd seated in the balcony could have read more than just the last two lines of each translation!
Too large a space?
I wasn’t too keen on reading subtitles while watching a dance drama. I was even less inclined when the stage curtain cut off half my visibility.
But there was enough in ‘Medea and its Double’ to keep me riveted. The striking yet spare sets, fluid movement, ceaseless energy and, most of all, incredibly controlled voices, filled the corners of what had seemed — for most of the festival’s plays — too large a space.
Beauty and brevity
Leave it to the Orientals to tell a tale with brevity, beauty and emotion. ‘Medea and its Double’ was a visual treat, magical and kaleidoscopic. The actors moved at lightning speed and precision, using breathtaking movements, song and dance to evoke the tragedy of Medea and Jason. However, on the whole, the performance lacked something — a crescendo of conflict maybe — a missing element one is hard put to identify.
Melody that lingers
Medea’s tale appears rather inhuman — a woman killing her own children to inflict pain on their father? It seemed an impossible task to present a soulful rendering of this tale, but that is exactly what the Seoul Factory for the Performing Arts managed. Using the idea of a double, the two faces of this enigmatic woman were presented in juxtaposition, highlighting the conflict between the two even while tenderly demonstrating the commonality.
The form itself — including stylised elements of dance — seemed well suited for such an exposition. Simple accessories were used effectively on a basic costume to suggest different characters. A wide range of settings and emotions was evoked through fantastic voice modulation — wailing infants, happily gurgling babies, children at play, parental solicitude, love and passion, desperation, power, raw rage, unrelenting grief.
The music was haunting, and the gradual build-up of tempo was achieved in a totally bewitching manner. Hours after leaving the theatre, the folk melody still lingers. The surtitles were a distraction, constantly drawing attention to the language barrier instead of letting the performance transcend it. Instead of surtitles, a handout containing the text could have been circulated in advance.
The Medea of Euripides describes a conflict that reflects several struggles in human history — between the centre and the periphery, the Occident and the Orient, the self and the other, the coloniser and the colonised. It is full of startling dualities that teeter dangerously between being sharp binary polarities and more balanced dichotomies. In literary context, therefore, it makes perfect sense for Medea to have a ‘double’, for with every external struggle that the play espouses, an internal one needs treatment.
Seoul Factory’s rendition of the play also champions just such a struggle — between stylisation and realism, comedy and tragedy, the masculine and the feminine — in such a way that its ambiguity almost tends to border on an absurd inconsistency and, often, incomprehensibility. Had Limb sought to make his Medea accessible, he fails, because the play not only assumes a knowledge of wild Medea’s story and its interpretations, but also stubbornly refuses to contextualise Medea’s angst, making her seem as wanton and depraved as the Corinthians thought she was.
The play’s greatest saving grace is its accompanying music that ranges from thunderous percussion to soft yodelling, creating moods with an ease that belies even the need for surtitles. Visually too, it is charming, alternating between the playful and the tempestuous in yet another swinging duality. But these are surface realities, while Medea calls for a deeper understanding.
‘Medea and Its Double’ was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in decades, in any form, be it music, theatre or any other performing art. How wonderful that Chennai was given this gift! I am relieved that I don’t have the job of describing what I experienced that night. What this group did deserves the highest praise possible. I wish I could say more but words fail. Just, “Thank you”, again and again, to The Hindu’s Metroplus Theatre Fest 2009, and to the InKo Centre, Chennai, for permitting us to experience this very rare privilege.
I was just about expecting some gymnastic extravaganza bringing a Greek tragedy ‘larger than life’. The play gave me this and more. A few waif like women and men dressed in white and cream, took us gently into a land faraway and mysterious, beautiful and fragile, innocent and heart-warming, filled with bird-songs and youngsters playing slowly metamorphosing into two of these kids turning into lovers and then to parents; and darkness kept on engulfing us. The gentle voice of the young girl in love was suddenly shrieking out in labour and then it reappeared in a lullaby to her infants. Suddenly, they became the wails of a woman wronged, despised and exiled. Then there were definitive two voices. I do not understand any Korean but the ‘Korean tragedy’, may I say it, moved me to tears, showed me a contorted image of a woman blind with jealousy and anguish and the impossible sorrow because of the immensity of her deeds. And deep within her, there was still innocence and purity that put up a brave fight to save her little ones! The birdsongs still haunt me and they are going to haunt me for a long, long time from now.