Greek tragedy meets black Australia


Black Medea
Directed by Wesley Enoch
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney
Until May 8
CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, from May 12


As director, Wesley Enoch has given us such outstanding theatrical successes as The Sapphires, Radiance, Stolen and The Cherry Pickers. With Black Medea he has taken on the role of writer as well, inspired by Medea, the tragedy by Euripides.

It is difficult to do justice to the scope of what he has attempted — to marry the power of Greek tragedy to the story of an Aboriginal woman who, in ultimate despair, kills her son.

The stage setting for this, designed by Christina Smith, is a work of art in itself. A bare table and chairs on a square of floor surrounded by sand. Around this, suggestions of a smoke-blackened cave and corrugated iron. Beyond, a curved metal screen perforated with countless holes like a dot painting. In the remarkable opening sequence, a light moves behind the screen, suggesting a walk through the night sky.

Into this empty space comes Medea (Margaret Harvey), a young Indigenous woman who has abandoned her land, denied her culture and forsaken her family for the love of her black husband, Jason. As she enters, she hurls a challenge to a mysterious force out there that seeks to destroy her and her family. "I am Medea!", she cries out, calling on the force to reveal itself. It is an awesome beginning to the drama.

Enter her husband Jason (Aaron Pedersen), in suit and tie, who has been ground down and humiliated by the white world of work. He has lost his identity and dignity, afraid of "the wind" out there. It is a potent mix to which alcohol and violence are added.

Then there is their son (Kyole Dungay), loved but fearful of his father's next explosion.

Watching all this with haughty disapproval is The Chorus (Justine Saunders), an ambiguous figure, part ancestral mother, part family elder. She blames Medea's unhappiness on Jason, who has lost his roots and failed to pass on tribal law to his son. She demands that Medea leave her husband and return with her son to her clan and a traditional way of life.

As the marital relationship reaches a crisis point, the sound design by Jethro Woodward with its grating, haunting effects becomes almost overpowering. Its function is to heighten the tragic atmosphere. But it cannot replace the raw, naked power of brilliant dramatic prose. King Lear does not need sound effects.

Medea becomes increasingly strident, defying the gods and society, proud of her decision to make herself an outcast. Jason, ravaged by alcohol and despair, becomes more and more incoherent. Fearing the worst, he says he is leaving Medea and taking the boy with him. From this moment, Medea is crazed with grief and despair. The Chorus seems to push her towards the final ultimate act of revenge, the killing of her son.

But that decision, I felt, was not justified dramatically within the terms of Enoch's play, as opposed to Euripides' version. I left feeling that her decision to kill the boy was gratuitous.

Here we come to the nub of the playwright's dilemma. "What I want to do with Black Medea is to think beyond the naturalistic and to grapple with the poetic forms of a classic story", writes Enoch. "Medea sacrifices her land and family connections to pursue her love. The story of an Aboriginal woman from the desert coming to the city and coping with seeing her love slip away is so potent for Indigenous Australians."

Enoch continues, "I am interested in Medea's choice to kill her son to stop a cycle of violence in her home". And this is where I found a problem with the production. The true motivation of Medea, the black woman who loves her son, was to me not dramatically convincing.

This should not discourage anyone from seeing Black Medea, which is without any doubt a uniquely bold theatrical venture.

From Green Left Weekly, April 27, 2005.
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