Medea and motive

Three new productions explore the deep, dark questions raised by this Greek myth
April 5, 2023

In 1968, the opera singer Maria Callas gave a televised interview to the Earl of Harewood. A year later, she would film her only spoken screen role, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Italian-language film Medea. Already, however, Callas was known for her interpretation of that Greek myth, in composer Luigi Cherubini’s telling of the story of the princess who elopes from her home on the Black Sea. In both, a besotted Medea betrays her family by aiding their Greek enemy, Jason, with witchcraft, then slaughters their sons in a rage after Jason abandons her.

Over the years, Callas told Harewood, her interpretation of Medea “changed a lot”. “Because I have seen her as a very static figure, a barbaric creature that knows what she wants from the beginning. And as I grew, I learned… that, though Medea was a very nasty character, Jason was even worse than she was… and she was right, in her motives.” As Callas would later tell students, she adopted a softer hairstyle as her Medea became more “feminine”.

The same themes are explored in two recent adaptations of the Medea myth. Dominic Cooke’s production of Euripides’ tragedy is at the @sohoplace theatre in London and stars Sophie Okonedo, who delivers a once-in-a-generation performance. Alice Diop’s French film Saint Omer follows the trial of an educated Senegalese immigrant woman who commits infanticide. Can Medea ever be “right, in her motives”? Must Medea recur in each society as our version of a barbarian, a foreigner? If you want a third dose of Greek tragedy this season, there’s also Simon Stone’s new stage version of Phaedra, which touches on these questions—but far less successfully. 

Greek tragedy depends on scale for its impact. Cooke’s and Diop’s versions get this right, Stone gets it wrong. Okonedo and her co-star Ben Daniels still give us the universality of Medea and Jason as a divorcing couple, cruelly using their children against each other, but there’s no doubt that they each embody nations. This Medea’s old nurse trembles at her distemper; the chorus women clearly fear that her quarrel has the power to flatten their city.

By contrast, Saint Omer is a courtroom drama on the fringes of French society. Its defendant first appears handcuffed and in the tow of a burly male gendarme. But, within this small room, we sense the shifting of geopolitical plates. Guslagie Malanda’s preternaturally calm Laurence (pictured) is a Medea who accuses others of witchcraft instead of practising it herself, claiming that “sorcery” enchanted her into killing her daughter. (The prosecution argues that she’s seeking revenge on the child’s feckless white father.) This isn’t a case that will stay in a single courtroom—the French secular state flounders in its attempt to respond—but its impact is most visible on Kayije Kagame’s Rama, a pregnant professor of literature who recognises Laurence’s struggles with her mother, as well as the pain of assimilating between France and Senegal.

Look instead to London’s National Theatre, and you will find Stone’s adaptation of the Phaedra myth, which Euripides told as another story about a foreign woman whose passionate nature destroys a Greek man’s life. Traditionally, Phaedra arrives from Crete as Athens’ new queen consort, falls in lust with her stepson and concocts a false rape accusation when he rejects her. Stone’s Phaedra is still a monster, played by the impressive Janet McTeer, but she’s a Blairite shadow minister rather than a queen; a cipher for conventional tropes about the ineffectual hypocrisy of the dinner-party classes. Stone also flips the race script. As the son of her ex—a weaker version of the original taboo—Assaad Bouab is the foreigner, not her. There’s no false rape claim, only a call to the Home Office’s Immigration Enforcement wing. That does shatter a life, but there’s little wider impact.

Cooke’s Medea is, on the other hand, unafraid to deal with Euripides’ place in the history of European racial chauvinism. Its Jason still crows at Medea, using Robinson Jeffers’s mid-century translation, “I carried you out of the dirt and superstition of Asiatic Colchis into the rational sunlight of Greece.” But it’s an empty superiority. He has his own superstitions and dirty ways; he easily discards his mixed-race children “from a barbarian mating, not a Greek marriage”. 

But Okonedo’s Medea is more wary, rational, cautious than the passionate creature of Jason’s imagination. As Callas knew, the question for every Medea is motive. Okonedo’s decision to kill comes as late in the play as possible and is strategic. What destroys a man? she asks her friend King Aegeus of Athens. The answer is the end of his dynasty. This is still Greek tragedy as grand political revenge.