Monday 21 January 2019

Does Medea belong in a gym or a palace?

The controversy which surrounded Fiona Shaw's 'Medea' at Wexford raised questions of taste and art

The cast of Medea by Cherubini, directed at Wexford last year by Fiona Shaw
The cast of Medea by Cherubini, directed at Wexford last year by Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw in the 2003 production of Medea, directed by Deborah Warner

Emer O'Kelly

When Fiona Shaw was announced as director for the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera production of Cherubini's Medea, there was understandable excitement, which carried through to phenomenal levels of early booking.

The enthusiasm became a lot more muted after opening night, however, with the production staged in almost starkly ugly modern dress, and the first act set in a gym where Jason's bride-to-be was working out in preparation for the wedding which was to see her supplant Medea in Jason's affections, and ultimately lead to her death at the other woman's hands and Medea's murder of her own two small children as an act of vengeance against her former lover.

Whether audiences hoped for pretty 18th century costumes (Cherubini's era) or flowing classical robes (Greek legendary garb), I'm not sure. But a lot of them sure as hell didn't like what they saw. I thought it was extraordinarily touching and vulnerable, and superbly sung, conducted and acted.

Why anyone thought the woman who has consistently challenged convention as both actor and director throughout her award-winning career in theatre and opera would present a timidly relaxing experience is hard to understand.

And therein lies a paradox: the struggle between the visual and the intellectual core. The legend of Medea presents a hideous parade of visceral hatred and psychotic brutality: prettiness on stage is what should outrage audiences rather than the reverse. It's not about the frocks!

When Shaw played the part herself at the Abbey, directed by her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner, she butchered the children on stage against a clear glass screen, on which huge spurts and gobbets of blood splashed. Not remotely pretty, but entirely theatrically effective.

Yet a recent survey done by Opera Holland Park on its audiences, described by director Michael Volpe as "older traditionalists" found 53pc put "appearance" of the production close to the top of their priority list.

It made me think about the publicity surrounding a new Italian "feminist" production of Bizet's Carmen, which reverses the ending: Carmen shoots her enraged and abandoned lover rather than being murdered by him. With "appearance" at the head of the audience requirements, perhaps that audience might have found such a ridiculous and psychologically idiotic ending entirely acceptable provided Carmen had enough ruffles on her skirt and sufficient fringe on her shawl.

And it reminded me of an entirely similar scenario in a production I saw many years ago in Cork of Miss Julie. In the original, Julie, the arrogant, spoiled, and rich coquette, humiliated and brought low by being savagely seduced by her father's valet, kills herself with her father's razor. In the Cork production, she shot Jean instead. Satisfying to female pride maybe, but Strindberg probably would have taken a razor to the director.

In Dublin several years ago, a production of Macbeth made its way into a Liveline discussion: there were complaints about the murder of Lady Macduff by Macbeth's hired killers. The director of that version saw fit to have her killed by being raped repeatedly with a broadsword: horrifying and chillingly authentic for the 12th century.

Outrage was expressed, not least by a female journalist who suggested that such things were "best left to the imagination." But since the airwaves were rocking with shock, the audience clearly had no imagination. And a director's task is to stir reality/imagination in an audience where it doesn't already exist.

But mainstream audiences, particularly for opera, don't like being disturbed. Sometimes they don't like being encouraged to face reality, and to have to think about the frequent ugliness of the world.

In that context, Michael Volpe quotes Kasper Holten, the former director of the Royal Opera House, who says producers/directors "have a duty to stretch the art form", with which I absolutely agree. Volpe on the other hand, has his doubts: believing the existing audience, however ageing and unadventurous, deserves to be cherished.

Yes, audiences need to be cherished - but they also need to be expanded, stimulated, and challenged. In theatre as in opera, this undoubtedly can be a recipe for directorial self-indulgence and arrogance.

There is a fairly modernist theatre company in the UK, which has won many an award. The founder-artistic director once said in an interview that "if the author's intentions interfere with what you want to do with the text, f*** the author's intentions." That can just as easily be translated as a director being extremely short on creative talent and needing to muck around with the infinitely superior talents of others.

(Shakespeare springs to mind: oh, the ghastly crimes against Shakespeare I've experienced, from directors who thought they knew more about him than the Master himself did.)

Idiotic arrogance is to be condemned out of hand wherever it rears its head. But art can't stand still; and since great art, even very good art, is almost always ahead of popular public taste, the true patron of the arts, be it the performance of an opera or a play, will open mind and heart to progress and new views. Being disturbed can be very rewarding!

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