A child lies on the floor, playing on his iPad. Another child leans against the wall, arms crossed, sometimes fiddling on a phone. The floor is white, the walls are white. The moment one looks at the stage, the play has begun. There isn’t a curtain that rises at the beginning. Instead, a white screen lifts, revealing more of this white void of a stage where a woman stands and the details of her face are projected onto this screen. You see the individual hairs of her eyebrows, the laugh lines around her eyes, the slightly smudged lipstick. It’s as if her face is being put under a microscope for an audience to dissect and diagnose.
This is how Simon Stone’s new adaptation of Medea begins. In the context of the play, it isn’t just her face being scrutinized, but her entire being. And, as Stone adapts—and creates—a new Medea, he soon places the nature of women—and humans—under experimentation in the laboratory of his stage.
Stone’s Medea was originally staged in 2014 with Dutch actors of Ivo van Hove’s International Theater Amsterdam, before being brought to London’s Barbican in 2019, and finally to Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York this past January where it was re-cast with Rose Byrne as Medea and Bobby Carneville as Jason. In his re-writing, Stone has also changed the names of characters: Medea is now Anna, while Jason is Lucas. When this Medea begins, Anna is being released from a psychiatric facility under the care of Lucas. She’s ended up in a facility for trying to poison Lucas with ricin, and he’s moved on with another woman—Clara, the daughter of the head of the pharmaceutical company they used to work at together. Anna doesn’t work there anymore; she’s not even allowed back into the building. She might have just returned from her exile in the mental hospital but, as her access card to the lab is snatched away, she is once again ostracized—this time from her place of work. She can move back into her house, but with her husband and children living elsewhere, the house is hardly a home. In less than twenty minutes, Anna has been marginalized from her role in a company, her role as a wife, and her role as a mother. Stone’s quick pacing of these realizations doesn’t give Anna or the audience time to process fully what it means to have one’s roles torn away. This is a question that requires the rest of the play to be explored. However, the speed of this opening sequence does augment the sense of pathos felt for Anna as she pleads for Lucas and the children to stay with her, and for there to be a negotiation about her custody of the children. Yet, amidst these early realizations Anna is calm and strangely composed, insisting that she’s “fine.” The tone of her voice, and strained face that the camera focuses in on reveals a determination—or perhaps a desperation. From the first moment that Anna says “I’m fine” the word becomes a kind of mask—a means of keeping up appearances in her home and in society.
This mask, this semblance of being “fine,” is nonetheless difficult to sustain. In one scene, Anna is running around the stage, enthusiastically trying to show her children and husband just how “fine” she is. A few scenes later, though, her two sons find her passed out, hungover, unable to bring them to school, unable to mother them. Scenes between Medea and her children aren’t in Euripides’ version of the tale, but Stone is eager to explore how “the pressure of motherhood on a successful, highly intelligent woman” can manifest itself. Anna’s mothering can in fact feel closer to intelligent manipulation. For example, as the children complain about their father’s cooking, she cleverly offers them takeout and other food to try and win their favor. It’s hard not to immediately criticize Anna’s attempts to use fast food to manipulate her children. But, immediately one might question this critical perspective on Anna’s actions. Afterall, she is feeding her children, and perhaps our judgement in fact stems from preconceived notions of gender in which the mother doesn’t just buy a pizza to nourish her family, but instead spends hours preparing a meal that somehow pleases the tastes of her husband and her children. The moments of motherhood that Stone presents are complex. Anna seems desperate in moments to take care of children, inspiring the audience’s pathos, but her actions invoke criticism of her mothering. Such pathos and criticism—or bias—are thus placed at odds with one another.
It would be wrong to glaze over the strong presence of the children of this adaptation, as they pose their own intriguing set of challenges. While in Euripides’ Medea one does not hear from the children or even see them, in this production they run around, invading spaces with their camera. As the camera zooms in on the quivering lip of their mother, or the exhausted eyes of their father, one can’t help but question whether this camera is also providing a perspective on how the children can see their parents. But the camera isn’t just a lens, it’s an object of direction and pressure. By knowing the documentary the children are making is for class, the parents are pressured to behave in particular ways—literally to smile for the camera. This camera also reveals a manipulative streak in the children as they use clips of their mother and father to try and disrupt the relationship between them. Perhaps their actions stem from a loyalty to their scorned mother; perhaps they are a warning about poor parenting. However, their cunningness also seems to signal a more concerning consideration about how character traits might be passed on through generations. The children may have inherited their mother’s intelligence, but that genius also has a dangerous potential.
By the end of Medea, the clinically white void of a stage is stained by ash and blood. It’s as if the experiment in the laboratory of the stage has gone terribly wrong, but it’s also been effective. Is this for Stone the product of “the epidemic of female energy being used behind the scenes and then not being credited. Female genius and female sacrifice?” It’s a dramatic product in more ways than one, but it’s also horribly inspired by true events. Stone revealed Debora Green—a doctor that burned down her house with her children inside it and killed her husband’s mistress—to be a real-life inspiration. Yet, Stone’s production doesn’t let one see Anna as just the evil murderess. He forces the audience to finally acknowledge her genius, her determination, even her love. The Medea of Stone’s production is strong against the weakened, disheveled, and lecherous Jason. The tragedy of the play doesn’t just reside in the deaths, but also in the question of “how did we get here?” Stone speaks frequently about the value of forcing a classic into the modern age. He demands us to think about how and why these myths are still so important in today’s society and in what ways the audience is responsible for prolonging the tragedies of people surrounding them. The production is a hard medicine to swallow while in the theatre, but its aftertaste also rightfully remains long after one has stopped looking directly at the stage.