This Story Is True—“Medea” by Bard in the Botanics: a review

The classics scholar Martha Nussbaum titles a chapter in The Fragility of Goodness, her magisterial work on tragedy, “This story isn’t true”, a reference to the Palinode (recantation) of Stesichorus in Plato’s Phaedrus 243a.

Stunned this evening by the performance of the erstwhile lovers under Gordon Barr’s direction of Medea, this phrase came to mind but as affirmation not pious negation: this story is true.

Kathy McCain’s plain spoken version starts, as does Euripides’ lyrical original, with the Nurse as narrator—but rather than relating the back story of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece, the devoted servant, played with forthright Scotch common sense by Isabelle Joss, states “this is not a love story”.

And yet, Nicole Cooper as Medea is (at first) so lovely. We feel this woman; those of us in the double rows of seats lining the link section of the Kibble Palace who know the story ken fine what she will be driven to do but, already, she has won our sympathy.

By the time the strapping Johnny Panchaud playing Jason strides into the scene (could this man look any more like the perfection of masculine beauty?) we are not immune to his considerable charm—and, clearly, neither is his ex-wife Medea—but our hearts are already taken and as charm fades into smarm the chilling modernity of the version hits us.

This is not a love story, it’s a story about ambition, manipulation, rejection, and gaslighting.

Alan Steele does well as Creon and the Tutor, the former adding menace and the latter plot points, but anyone who has experienced the persuasive power of a master manipulator—either in domestic or workplace abuse—can understand why the physical threats of the King matter little to Medea: Creon may hold her life in his hand but Jason has crushed her heart.

90 minutes is a very long time to maintain almost constant emotional intensity. The few workaday props give the female characters some business and the sparse music and subtle lighting adds tension but Cooper is emoting onstage most of the time—and we simply cannot take our eyes off her. Nor she us. An extraordinary ability to elicit complicity. We feel we are her friends.

The Greek speech is so well done. Language in this version is a gift, not a barrier. “To ksero, I know”, Medea tells us, “den thelo tipota, I don’t want anything”. It adds to her exotic appeal and, shrieked offstage, indicates her raving madness.

This is a woman driven mad by a man everyone else thinks is a hero. The moments when they embrace are precisely such a mindfuck because that’s exactly what gaslighting is: attempted mental rape. This story is true because a myth observed with attention highlights the painful realities of our human experience (ancient or modern our nature doesn’t change) that we would rather ignore.

The poet recanted after being struck blind, for the impiety of blaming Helen, daughter of a God, for the destruction of Troy. Perhaps we should judge Medea with similar caution: diabolical and divine, mother and murderess, this stunning performance by Bard in the Botanics bids us ask ourselves—under such circumstances, life torn asunder by men, a cruel king and a callous hero, backed by an army, can we really blame her?

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