I was unfortunate enough to be surrounded by school children when attending Zen Zen Zo’s brilliant new offering Medea The River Runs Backwards last week but as the booming voice of Peter Cossar (Creon) surprised us from behind – “Medeaaaaa!” – the teenagers jumped out of their skins and I realised that I was going to enjoy something extra with this performance – a rare opportunity to witness the effect that great theatre has on restless youths.
With Creon’s bellow, the rabble was suddenly wide-eyed and silent and stayed that way for the entire duration.
For a script that was first produced in 431BC Medea still packs an almighty punch and Euripides makes Shakespeare look like a hack “revenge thy name is actually Medea” and under the Direction of Drew Der Kinderen, Zen Zen Zo’s retelling of this ancient tragedy is as feisty and exciting as the lead character herself. Medea, betrayed by her husband Jason (of the golden fleece persuasion) and facing exile from her adopted homeland is driven to plot the ultimate revenge, starting with Glauce (his new bride-to-be) and Glauce’s father Creon and ending with the two sons she (Medea) bore Jason. As an older Medea apparently faces death, Der Kinderen replays the events of her life in a sort of flash-before-the-eyes moment exploring the possibility of her future guilt and regret. The beauty of this story however is that Medea doesn’t have to be read as a wicked child-murdering shrew (as mothers who kill their children always are) but rather the tragic exactor of the toll for betrayal and with the enormously talented Lauren Jackson in the title role commanding a powerful and enduring performance – it’s really easy to sympathise with our anti-heroine.
Jackson is simply mesmerising, so immersed that you can see her inner dialogue also running seamlessly “in character” and when the play ended, it took her several minutes before she was physically capable of breaking and returning to herself. Newcomer to the Australian stage Eric Berryman was cast as show-pony Jason, Berryman in a somewhat rusty looking knitted cape (a fading golden fleece perhaps) was easy to dislike as the sweet-talking traitor but in that final moment when he realises what his actions have cost him Berryman’s breakdown is desperate, believable and resolved. A wonderful Chorus, seven young women are a chorus in more ways than one, vocally and physically they engaged the characters and narrate the story in their haunting rhythm. Brennan Campbell played Aegeus, Medea’s future husband (and future banisher).
Zen Zen Zo must revel at being housed in Brisbane’s Old Museum, the historic building providing perfect inspiration for production designer Christine Urquhaut. In essence, Urquhaut has created a reverse theatre in-the-round, situating the audience in the centre of the hall as if we were unfortunate guests caught in the middle of a mighty domestic. Having seen a performance in this studio before, we waited casually at the far entry doors where we had been greeted previously but were surprised as haunting spectres in white flung open the French doors and summonsed us. While there was effectively a “stage” space in front of the audience with sparsely decorated columns and hanging white shapes like disfigured memories from a dream, the drama happened all around us as Medea, Jason, Creon, Glauce and the Chorus used the space behind and to the side, inside and outside keeping the audience a little on edge all the time. I really think some of the panache of this production would be lost if viewed in a normal, boring venue. There is a multi-media element in the form of projections but these didn’t really add much to the production as a whole. Mention must also be made of the fabulous costuming designed by Julian Napier – the only way to describe it would be Mad Max-like, punkish, slightly futuristic but not too much – it had the effect of modernising the story just enough to refresh it but leaving its integrity intact.
Medea The River Runs Backwards is the calibre of production that Zen Zen Zo have built their reputation on and it was extremely satisfying to experience it. Playing a selections of dates until 7 September at the Old Museum (free parking on the street after 7pm but also a short walk from Brunswick St Station).
Tickets can be purchased online at webticketing.com.au but with thirteen shows already sold out I encourage you to book without delay – take your teenagers, they will love it.