What kind of a culture embraces, even applauds a woman who butchers her kids just to spite her love-rat husband? What kind of a culture sits and watches, perhaps with amused detachment, somebody undergoing the agony of a fatal anal rape?
Thankfully, the kind of culture that can still enjoy the cathartic effect of such grim horrors played out in a darkened room (respectively, in the cases above, The Medea Effect at the Segal and Terminus at the Centaur).
Such enjoyment (if that’s the right word) is conditional. Keep theatre tied to the kitchen sink or set it in the local park and the most likely reaction to such horrors will be disgusted letters to the newspapers or theatre boards. Edward Bond’s Saved and Sarah Kane’s Blasted famously fell foul of such outrage. But place them in the world of myth and you can show just about anything and still not scare the horses. Man bludgeons his dad to death, screws his mum and gouges his own eyes out? No problem. (Similarly, without the imprimatur of sacred myth, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ would go straight to the “torture porn” section.)
This week sees the return of Talisman Theatre’s award-winning production of The Medea Effect, Suzie Bastien’s intense two-hander in which Classical Greece’s infanticidal demi-goddess provides a jumping off point for traumas of a more modern kind. Its director, Emma Tibaldo, unapologetically admires this most terrifyingly vengeful of women.
“She’s coming from a different time and a different reality. She’s half a god and she’s used her power to get Jason to a place of power. He’s made an oath to her, and an oath to a demi-god isn’t something you take lightly. And then he betrays her completely. But not only does he betray her, he takes away all her dignity. She no longer has any place she can go to. She’s without land, without money, without prospect. So basically he has mudered her, and murdered her children by stripping her of her legacy. So she uses the only power she has. The story’s remained with us for over 2000 years, because the act is so – some people would say grotesque, I say so incredibly symbolic and definite and clear. She knows what the consequences will be but she does it with a clarity that is formidable. It’s heroic.”
And yet the fact remains that she butchers her children.
“So does he, except he doesn’t do it with a knife. He does it with a sense of entitlement and a male power that she doesn’t have access to, because she’s worthless. She’s a woman, without land.”
The Medea Effect, which focuses very much on the maternal aspect of the story, is part of a long tradition of plays viewing Greek myths through the prism of modern times – Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Eurydice, and Medee; Berkoff’s Greek, Marina Carr’s In the Bog of Cats (which also took on Medea), Enda Walsh’s Penelope (The Odyssey transposed to a kind of Club Med bad dream).
If the plot of The Medea Effect sounds familiar – mysterious actress turns up to audition for formidable female role, confounds male director’s intitial scepticism – that’s possibly because you caught David Ives’ Venus in Fur at Centaur last November. Ives also brought classical myth crashing into the quotidian world with spectaular results, conjuring up an almighty Aphrodite to crush male presumption under her stiletto heel. (For the record, Bastien’s play predates Ives’ by several years).
Right now at Centaur, there’s another mash-up of myth and modernity in Terminus. In this, Mark O’Rowe borrows from Judeo-Christian myth, setting up a Paradise Lost-style rumble between angels and demons on the mean streets of Dublin. Meanwhile, a brutish trio of lesbian Furies straight out of Aeschylus stalk their victims.
If O’Rowe and Bastien use myth to exorcise personal demons, Paul Van Dyck’s new play uses it to explore the tragedy of whole peoples. Using puppetry, masks and music, The Nisei and the Narnauks tells the story of a young British Columbian girl of Japanese descent who emerges from a Second World War internment camp and goes in search of her grandmother across the West Coast. Along the way, she encounters the myths of the Haida tribe and discovers parallels between the two peoples’ sorry treatment by successive Canadian governments.
“I guess I’ve always been interested in Canada’s dirty little secrets,” says Van Dyck, explaining what brought him to this story. “We come across as a very open, loving, multi-cultural polite, insipid kind of country, but we’ve done some pretty horrific things that we don’t teach in school. We tend to bury these things that happened right here in Canada, in our own back yard. I guess I felt a certain shame about it and wanted to explore it further. It happened fairly recently and could just as easiliy be repeated with some other culture.
“Geographically, because of the little girl’s journey, the Haida mythology kind of came into play. But it also juxtaposes the two cultures. Both of them had been displaced and robbed and devastated by the powers-the-be. So I wanted to explore that. But in a fun, childlike puppet adventure story.
“I guess Pan’s Labyrinth could be seen as a reference point, the way it shows a child’s perspective and reverts to this kind of fantasy mythology world where the kid becomes the hero rather than being overwhelmed by this great political machine. She takes back a little bit of power.
“It’s also a coming-of-age story. We see how grown-up this little girl becomes compared to a country that’s still in its adolescence, still hasn’t become an adult yet, is still making mistakes like this.”
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.