SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Above melodrama; true tragedy

Vital gestures: The play was a seamless tapestry of action.  

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Satoshi Miyagi's "Medea" resonated with moral values, while recognising human flaws.

"I WANT the audience to draw in their breath when my play starts and release it when the curtain comes down," sighed an Indian theatre director. She added, "Like Satoshi Miyagi's plays." Last year the diminutive Japanese director stunned Delhi audiences with his version of "Othello". His "Medea" proved even more stupendous in its stylised form and emotional content at Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2007, the National School of Drama's annual theatre fest.

Few parallels

This chilling tale of a mother killing her offspring has few parallels in world myths. Medea, the sorceress, betrays her royal father to help Greek hero Jason to win the Golden Fleece. She leaves her motherland to accompany him only to be spurned when Jason decides to marry a Greek princess in order to succeed her father as king. Medea's revenge does not stop with killing her rival with poisoned robes; she also murders her son. Through the ages, this monstrous archetype has fascinated poets and playwrights to re-interpret the traditional image of demoniac villainy. Miyagi's version has many levels, some perhaps culturally ungraspable for foreign viewers. But what did come through was layered enough to keep eye and ear anxiously riveted. The stage is set much before the play begins. Kimono-clad Geishas, their faces covered, stand like statues. To their right stands a tall bookcase, a panel of paintings for backdrop. Each is to function later as curtains for entries and exits. An unnoticed teapot and cup become crucial to action.Black robed men enter through the audience chattering in unintelligible Japanese, bound for intelligible merriment in the restaurant. They pull off the "face covers" of the maids, and order them to entertain their guests with a play: Medea.

Unique third dimension

The play proceeds on parallel tracks of speakers (all male) and movers (female) weaving a seamless tapestry of action. The men seated at the back in a row make the chorus, and provide voices for the "movers", women enacting the roles in mime, gesture and movement. A unique third dimension emerges in these audio-gender transfers as men speak for women characters, as also for male roles enacted by women. A heightened communicability emerged from the high-pitched, emotional modulations, whether love, anger overt or suppressed, jealousy, callousness, and intense grief, building tragedy tone by microtone. You stop glancing at the supertitles for fear of losing the audio-visual nuances. The actors use stylised mime from Japanese traditional arts (Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku). Medea's flowing kimono makes its own statement against Jason's more European military attire, sparkling white against her cream and blue. If speaker Kazunori Abe made Medea both plaintive and belligerent, actress Micari etched a porcelain nymph of Asiatic origins against the Hellenic male, begging him to not to desert her and his little son. She realises that not only does Jason spurn her for a throne; he discards an Asiatic for a Greek, asserting his racial superiority.

Visual metaphor

The bookcase evolves not only into a phallic symbol, but a visual metaphor for rationalism, for the Apollonian against the Dionysian. When Jason gives his son a book to read, he tries to eliminate the dark "Medean" influences of the East. We are up against a mighty confrontation between a patriarchal civilisation and the mother-goddess traditions of the Orient. A sterile, pitiless logic ravages life-giving earth, until the earth erupts in destruction of its own fruits.Finally, the unspeakable act becomes understandable. The director wonders if Medea would have killed a girl child. For Jason is not her only target, but the entire patriarchal system of the West. She does not kill; she sacrifices the child in her attempt to destroy the system that asphyxiates women. She must save her son from growing into a matricidal tyrant. Formal ritual meets human anguish when the mother holds the knife in her mouth and hunts the son. After the initial struggle, the child comes willingly into the mother's embrace, wipes her tears, and plunges himself into blade. Son in arms, Medea exits into her own ethnic world.The silent decrepit nurse moves in slow motion across the stage through the one and a half hour performance, recording and photographing the happenings. She is the repository of fragile memories, soon to be erased, distorted, with new readings by the conquerors.

Political undertones

There are more specific political undertones as well. For Miyagi casts the Japan-Korea political tangle into Medea legend. And for Indian viewers disturbing echoes ring into contexts closer home.Contemporaneity is also visible in the play-beside-the-play, where the background has tea-serving geishas plagued by lustful men. Suddenly, a gentle creature twists her tormentor's neck. As Medea exits, the music gains in stridency. The kimonos are replaced by skirts blazing orange, as the women rush in and overpower the men. The stage is littered with bodies in a Jacobean tragic finale. The delicate women turn into avenging furies of righteous rage, might, and justice. "Medea" had a master clockmaker's precision. No move or sound was out of place. Every shadow was orchestrated to an inevitable harmony. Despite the visual shock in the finale, the play overdid nothing. The craft perfection of the choreography was matched by lights, costume and music, against a slightly too busy backdrop. But while watching the play none of these things registered as separate entities. Language ceased to matter. Gesture became vital downcast eyes, a flutter of hands, a supplicant bow, an offered cup... Satoshi Miyagi's "Medea" resonated with moral values, while recognising human flaws. And thereby rose above melodrama to become true tragedy. The long pause before the standing ovations exploded announced that we left the theatre richer than we were when we entered it.