MEDEIA in its current format opened at the Zurcher Theater Spektakel, an international theatre and performing arts festival held annually in Zurich, Switzerland, at the end of last month.
It also played in Basel, Switzerland, and after this four-day run at the Baxter, it returns to Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and five other Dutch cities.
If the name seems familiar, Medeia (European spelling) takes its cue from the piece designed and directed by Brett Bailey and first performed as a site-specific piece at Wits University in 2003 and at the Spier Estate, Stellenbosch, in 2005.
It is based on a text originally written by Dutch theatre writer Oscar van Woensel, representing the first time Bailey has adapted someone else’s text for his own use in this way.
Van Woensel’s heavily cerebral text was a fragmented script of 40 pages of free verse, making the adaptation “tricky to hold together”.
Bailey hasn’t worked in a conventional theatre space since 2003 (slaughtering the chicken to the dismay of sensitive patrons of the Baxter in iMumbo Jumbo), but was persuaded to come back inside because he’s doing Verde’s opera, Macbeth, next year and needs the theatre practice.
“It’s not easy. A lot of my trickery I have evolved over the last few years is about really beautiful and interesting sites. When you are working with theatre there is no forgiveness. There you are, on the stage. You can’t hide behind a fantastic eroded factory, or something like that,” said Bailey.
One of the biggest differences between the site-specific performance of Medeia and this framed-for-theatre-space piece is that the (not so much Greek, but more like the back-up singers in the Fela Kuti band) chorus is more empowered.
While the chorus furthered the action through ritual before, now they tell the story in the framing conventions of a rock concert, with Frank Paco backing up the singers (Indalo Stofile, Mbali Kgosidintsi and Namhla Chuka) with percussion on a drum kit.
The production makes use of a lot of video and music from contemporary bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay, but listen out for some unusual arrangements such as the Cobra Verde version of Play with Fire (originally by the Rolling Stones) or musical references to Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away.
This rock concert framing stems out of Van Woensel’s original text which constantly referenced songs.
Another difference a very observant audience member who saw that first version at Spier might notice is that Bailey has toned down the Haitian references to voodoo.
Through Medeia’s story Bailey explores the experience of being an immigrant and the retention or violation of cultural vestiges which offend another culture. There’s also the plundering of Africa, as represented by Jason (James McGregor) coming in search of gold, who takes home an exotic bauble in the form of Medeia (played by Faniswa Yisa) .
The Medeia character in Greek literature is often used to portray a woman’s vengeance and van Woensel’s version sees the character deliberately kill her children.
With this performance Bailey tackles many of the themes he used so well in his critically lauded Exhibit A: “the otherness and the other in Europe. In a way I am orientating it for an European audience – a woman who comes from an exotic land comes to Europe and she is regarded as other.”
Stories of Medeia’s preceding treachery are presented as gossip and the character is portrayed as ostracised, victimised and disempowered when she is ditched by Jason for the king’s daughter. Medeia plots her revenge and kills the two children she had with Jason, destroying the link between her and the city of Corinth.
“She’s very clear about it, saying these children were the product of the love between Jason and her, and Jason’s destroyed that love and therefore the product can’t exist.
“She says these boys will grow up socialised into the society without her and they’re going to become monsters like him, a misogynist monster who can just throw away a woman, and she doesn’t want two more monsters like that in this world.”
He also references broader socio-political issues with the chorus, who constantly speak about how powerless they are, ”articulating their powerlessness as strangers in a strange land, as women in a patriarchal society”.
Then there’s a scene in which the Medeia character is victimised and her headscarf torn off, a reference to new French and Belgian laws about the wearing of head coverings.
While the story covers some very dark ground, he has nonetheless given the performance a celebratory tone, because “there’s an underdog choosing to act and change her situation. So, the killing of the children becomes symbolic. What she’s doing is choosing to act and saying she will not be silenced.”
• Brett Bailey and Third World Bunfight present medEia at the Baxter Theatre from tomorrow to Saturday at 8pm. Tickets: R120, R80 for students and pensioners at Computicket.