“Love makes you do the strangest things, sometimes”
Won’t somebody think of the children? In fact, that’s exactly what’s writer/director Anne-Louise Sarks and co-writer Kate Mulvany have done with their version of Medea, first seen at the Belvoir, Sydney a couple of years ago. Their spin – and a spin is needed here in London, given that Rachel Cusk’s adaptation of the play has only just closed at the Almeida – is to retell Euripides’ tragedy through the eyes of Medea’s two sons.
It’s an innovative approach and one that pays great dividends in Sarks’ production. Played out in real time at just over an hour, we first meet Leon and Jasper as their mother locks them in their bedroom before going downstairs to argue with their father. To pass the time, they bicker and play games, ominously focused on death and violence, and tiptoe delicately around their limited understanding of the strangeness of their situation.
It’s beautifully done, emerging as much as a study of the impact of divorce on children as a subtle reinterpretation of Euripides’ drama. Leon clings to his father’s Fleece-like jumper as a memento of him, the boys talk about his new “friend” and how pretty she is, Jasper breaks his mother’s heart when expressing excitement at the prospect of moving into their new mansion away from her. This combination brings about some quietly devastating moments.
And what’s incredible is how much of the show rests of the shoulders of its two young performers and how accomplishedly they carry it off. Bili Keogh’s Leon, alternating with Bobby Smalldridge, and Samuel Menhinick’s younger Jasper, a role shared with Keir Edkins-O’Brien are both stunningly assured as sketching out this convincing portrayal of buoyant brotherhood and the oppressive depth of emotion that they find themselves in, even if they don’t fully comprehend it.
Emma Beattie’s Medea may only pop her head around the door a couple of times but even in these short spells, the overwhelming effect of a grief that has hollowed her out can’t be disguised. And as Amy Jane Cook’s traverse design makes an unwitting starlit prison out of the boys’ playful den, there’s a slowly growing horror at the realisation there’s no way out.
Reflecting the mode of storytelling (and perhaps the boys’ ages), the tragedy is dialled down a tad which mutes the emotional impact a little but this is still a very clever piece of theatre and a showcase for some extremely talented young actors.