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Classic Greek story still relevant in modern Ireland

Medea

Gate Theatre, Dublin  Until February 22

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Marvellous performance: Oscar Butler (left) as Leon and Jude Lynch as Jasper. Photo by Simon Burch

Marvellous performance: Oscar Butler (left) as Leon and Jude Lynch as Jasper. Photo by Simon Burch

Marvellous performance: Oscar Butler (left) as Leon and Jude Lynch as Jasper. Photo by Simon Burch

Children trapped in a room, playing dead and telling stories to pass the time. This show feels like Emma Donoghue's Room, but has an altogether more sinister and hopeless ring. Medea is both loving mother and monster. A recent news story where a Dublin mother was charged with killing her three children casts an unavoidable real-life gloom over the proceedings. Somehow the usual aesthetic distance of theatre has become distorted, which makes this a difficult show to see in the current moment. Theatre, with its liveness, sometimes does that.

Euripides' play from the 5th century BC is about a woman who kills her two sons in revenge at her husband leaving her for another woman. It has been revived in countless versions over the centuries. The play usually focusses on the betrayal/revenge dynamic between the adults. This Australian adaptation by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, first produced in 2012, shifts perspective to tell the story through the eyes of the children.

The setting is modern; the boys are locked in their bedroom and understand that their parents are sorting out "marriage stuff". They speculate about their future as they believe they will go to live in "Dad's friend's" mansion. The play explores how marital conflict impacts on children.

Director Oonagh Murphy gets marvellous performances from the two child actors, played on opening night by Oscar Butler as Leon and Jude Lynch as Jasper. Leon is a trainee big-man, who takes his role as elder brother very seriously; Jasper is precocious, playful and skittish; Eileen Walsh, a brittle and bleak Medea, has the difficult job of bringing adult darkness into the boys' world.

Alyson Cummins' superb design creates an attic bedroom as well as a universe, collapsing time with a galaxy of stars. The boys' room is stuffed with toys and cushions and an exotic fishtank. Aedín Cosgrove's lighting is tinged with childish wonder: garlands of lights, coloured rocklamps and fluorescent stars. Every bulb says these children are much cared-for.

This is a delicate subject, and it gets delicate treatment. One of the most fundamental social taboos is that of a woman harming her children. Medea is one of the few classic works that insists women are as capable of bad behaviour as men. The fault in the adaptation is that there is insufficient material for Medea to fully convey her motivations. There is much empathy to be gained in shifting to the children's perspective, but it comes at a dramatic cost: emotional appeal wins out over psychological depth.

 

Documentary theatre at its best

What I (Don't) Know About Autism

Peacock Theatre, Dublin Until Tonight, then at Everyman, Cork (February 11-13) and Mermaid, Bray (February 15)

The kerfuffle surrounding Senator Catherine Noone's recent comments about autism revealed a general public cluelessness about the condition.

Writer Jody O'Neill and the Abbey Theatre have co-produced this juicy, informative show about autism. It does a terrific job of conveying the complexity of autistic identity, in all its colourful variations.

Six highly effective performers, including O'Neill herself, present the eclectic material. There are funny versions of pop songs that tease out psychological ideas. There is a brief history of how autism has been medically treated since it was first labelled in the 1940s.

Parents of autistic children are shown being effective but also sometimes being useless or damaging. The challenges of the condition are mixed up with a sort of glorious uncompromising anarchy. Some terrific romance and dating scenes are played by Jayson Murray and Eleanor Walsh.

Dónal Gallagher directs with plenty of theatrical panache. The performances are "relaxed" in that the usual formalities of theatre are ignored, no blacked-out auditorium or shushing of noise-makers. An atypical theatre show, but a highly entertaining brain-opener on this complex subject.

Indo Review