BEN BLYTH is pleasantly surprised by ‘the very worst first night any director could have envisioned’.
Thursday 4th – Saturday 6th, 8.00, Jesus College Forum, £4.
Directed by Stephen Bailey.
What governs a star rating? People have suggested that there is such thing as an 'ADC star', which is automatically knocked off when a show graces those boards. I'd like to be a bit more optimistic, perhaps there's an 'other venues' star – where reviewers take into account the limited resources and necessarily increased resourcefulness of the production team.
Certainly not all reviewers judge all shows by the same criteria, but most concede that to an extent they are governed by the criteria each show sets itself. I'm not saying that I enjoyed this show because my expectations were low. They were. I'm saying that I enjoyed this show because in spite of all this, I cannot remember the last time I felt more in touch with the real beating heart of the theatre. Both this show and this review are about much more than how many lights were switched on or how the costumes looked.
Medea is Euripedes' classically haunting tale of an abandoned mother resolving to take revenge on her former husband Jason (of 'The Argonauts' fame) through the act of infanticide. The story, a single plot line (thank you Aristotle with your unities) traces her experience through a single day – a masterpiece in the steady realisation of the resolve required to commit the deed imagined in her very first scene. It helps that the translation is excellent, as the script carries with it both the weight of threat behind Medea's words and the quickness of wit and tongue with which she manipulates both Aegeus and Jason. Congratulations must be extended to Coleridge then, although I'm not so sure he much cares for them now. Jenny Scudamore was genuinely affecting as Medea, heartbreakingly tender to her children (real children!) and viciously alluring to Aegeus. I was with her all the way.
The production itself was very limited in scope, but then it needed to be. The budget was miniscule and extended to a couple of rented lights and some grapes. A white sheet was hung upstage-centre to create both a back-stage and surface on which to project shadow-puppetry during the Nurse's recollections of Jason and Medea's early romance. Generic fresher theatrical effect number one – tick. The lighting was basic and I had waited for the 'red wash' that always accompanies freshers plays and even that was duly delivered 10 minutes in. Sooner than expected. Generic fresher theatrical effect number two – tick.
It wasn't just monetary restrictions that this show had to overcome. The chorus (in any production if a Greek tragedy a chance for the director to really mark the play) was two women in black speaking almost in unison every other line depending on whichever one remembered it better (or louder). The venue too was freezing cold, a problem the production crew had attempted to overcome by plugging in electric heaters into each socket around the wall. Inevitably the fuse tripped and the lights went out just as Medea was announcing her resolution to slay her babes. The show must go on. A break was reached, the director timidly announced that 'er…the lights have…..er……gone'. Over waltzes this reviewer and man of plays. Looks at the technical boards, internally panics, absolutely no idea what this 'box' or 'plug' or whatever you call this long thin black creature is, and finally sits back down having agreed that 'it's probably something to do with the electric'. Nods all round. Some genius switches the Forum lights on, and we continue until a Porter arrives and trips the switch. 20 blessed minutes without the red wash.
Then came the 'eureka' moment. The heart of this production had endured the very worst first night any director could have envisioned – because ultimately it is not the technical mumbo jumbo that makes the theatre. It's not the set or the costumes or the make-up or any of the glitz. It is a real connection with that compassion and range of emotions that make us human. I'm swallowing my pride a little as a reviewer here. Please do go and see this show, and please do disagree with me. The lighting and costumes were shit. Some of the acting was atrocious. The direction was laboured and highly unoriginal, but this production gained so much from exactly what 'the Relapse' (the other show I reviewed this week) suffered: it didn't try to be anything other than it was. And it made me cry.