Friday 23 August 2019

Beneath the evil, human vulnerability

  • Medea, Wexford Opera Festival
  • Josephine K and the Algorithms, Peacock Theatre
Lisa Davidsen in 'Medea' at Wexford Opera Festival
Lisa Davidsen in 'Medea' at Wexford Opera Festival
Orla Fitzgerald and Carl Kennedy in 'Josephine K and the Algorithms'

Emer O'Kelly

Medea mixes tradition and adventure to devastating effect, writes our reviewer.

For director Fiona Shaw, Medea is all about the children. They play across the stage during the overture; when Medea retires in despair after King Creon's refusal to grant her sanctuary, she goes to the nursery where she flings herself on their little bed. For Shaw (as for composer Cherubini) the witch's terrible revenge on her faithless husband is not a coincidental undertaking with the children as weapons: she loves them desperately, and their murder is as much a mercy killing to take them to a better place as it is the ultimate crime.

Shaw's production for the opening night of Wexford Festival Opera was somewhat taxed by post-hurricane electrical problems, but the intent was clear and devastating. As Medea prepares the poison which will kill Jason's new bride agonisingly, there is a powerful sense of evil pervading the scene. There is also human vulnerability throughout, with the opera opening set in a gym where Glauce is working out in preparation for her wedding - defenceless in her gym gear.

Lise Davidsen, immensely tall, makes a hugely impressive Medea, dominating the stage throughout, her voice ranging into an almost rasping growl in the lower registers (her scene with Adam Lau's resonantly musical Creon is unforgettable. )

Orla Fitzgerald and Carl Kennedy in 'Josephine K and the Algorithms'
Orla Fitzgerald and Carl Kennedy in 'Josephine K and the Algorithms'

And if Stephen Barlow's conducting imposes modernity on the score, that is an almost seamless match for the interpretation, and the singers rise magnificently to it, with Ruth Iniesta setting the bar extremely high in the opening scene as Glauce, only just surpassing Sergey Romanovsky's tenor (Jason).

But the opera is Davidsen's, and both Shaw and Barlow wisely allow the possession in Annmarie Woods' intense set, with smooth choreography from Kim Brandstrup. The video storm finale (Silbersal/shadowlab) is a tour de force, and there is also an impressive Neris from Raffaella Lupinacci.

Wexford audiences can be lukewarm towards 20th century work. Medea with its baroque elegance, and Shaw's unrepentantly modern interpretation makes for an impressive combination of tradition and 21st century psychology, to appeal to traditionalists and the more adventurous musical spirits.


Josephine K is a very normal woman until the day she wakes up (her birthday, coincidentally) to find a strange man in her flat. To add insult to invasive injury, he's eating her breakfast. Then he tells her she's under arrest - and she should really get dressed before going out.

An odd kind of arrest, she thinks, especially when neither the man nor anyone else will tell her the reason for her arrest. All she can learn is the date for her trial. She protests: there is due process, and there must be procedures. There are, and they're being followed, a colleague at work tells her when she tells him the story.

So far, so The Trial by Franz Kafka. But then playwright Stacey Gregg takes off on a whimsical track.

In Josephine K and the Algorithms, the man Josephine's talking to, and the man in her flat, who is refusing to leave, are algorithms, part of the material her brain has been processing in the years of the media age.

And they know everything about her, because they have shared all her information, whether that information is reality or a "face" she wears for the social world.

So Josephine goes back to a time of memory, and her internal reaction to events she has actually seen or experienced: a visit to a refugee camp, an attack on an asylum seeker, a drowned baby lying on a beach; the information that a man encountered in difficult circumstances has thrown himself from a fourth floor window.

They are not part of the shared world of the face of social media, because they are privately in her mind. Since the algorithms know what is in her shared mind, including small deceptions, failures, and imperfections, is it the unshared recess that they do not share for which she must stand trial: facts rather than shared and argued perceptions, the crime of a private thought?

Again, the algorithms have no answer: she must continue as before.

Is believing in fact a proof of guilt? Is perception of truth rather than the thing itself "the new black" so to speak? And it really began for Josephine when she was automatically clicked on a book sale, and tried to return it. So maybe, Gregg implies, that's the crime: an association with an outmoded source of facts.

The play doesn't say anything profound or new (let's be honest, even Kafka himself was treading well-covered ground, albeit with claustrophobic intensity). Gregg's touch is lighter, and intended to be. But she does ask us to think about our own contribution to the world of new media fantasy and the "fact" of "fake news".

Josephine K and the Algorithms is given a lavish production at the Peacock Theatre, with Orla Fitzgerald likeably combining impatience and rumination as Josephine and Carl Kennedy as an entertainingly owlish multi-algorithm. He's also responsible for the excellent sound, while the eerily cavernous design in the hollowed-out theatre is by Kate Moylan.

Lighting is by John Crudden and Caitriona McLaughlin directs with a sure hand.

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