It’s kind of a good time to be revisiting Medea, because you’re just about to go back and do it again?
Are you feeling strange about revisiting it?
No, I’m feeling really good about revisiting it actually. It’s nice to come back to something that you loved so much, and is so solid as a concept. That’s quite a delight for me – generally I build from the ground up each time. Personally as an artist, it can be quite draining, to continuously invent something brand new. So I’m quite excited to see what this is, and meet it in a new way. But it will be new. It kind of has to be.
I was going to ask, what are you bringing to it that you think you might change?
The first thing is that the play was built around those boys, and those were Australian boys four years ago or whenever it was. And so to meet these little British boys, it’s going to have to be new. They’ll have to find things that they want to say themselves or ways that they refer to things. I was really conscious of that in the auditions as well. I mean we understand each other but we also do kind of speak different languages about things. Just finding that stuff is guaranteed to make it new but then also it’s a new theatre, it’s a new design, it’s a new concept, it’s a new shape. Everything is reinvented for The Gate, which is great because even if I wanted to hold on naively, I can’t.
I was wondering if you could take me back to where it all started, how the process began for you.
Basically there were a few things that happened. I’d seen a production of A Doll’s House when I was a drama school which I really loved. Drama school is a very particular bubble of the world, so it’s sort of funny to be attached to something so much from there. In this production, I remember how true to life A Doll’s House was. Nora felt very young, and much more like me, so I enjoyed the production (if I saw it now I’m not sure if I would love it in quite the same way). But anyway, right at the end, as Nora decides to leave, they reverted to the German ending that Ibsen had written, where Nora’s kids come out and Nora is blackmailed into staying. And I’d never seen the German ending before, I didn’t know that much about it, it turns out the Ibsen was forced into writing it for this German actress who refused to play the original. He wrote it so his play would have a German production, but then immediately regretted doing so. But the thing that struck me about it when I saw it was that it really changed the air of the theatre when that kid came on. It was an actual child. And I’d just been watching this show full of people I knew very well then all of a sudden there’s this little kid just standing there. Everything about the experience shifted and I thought, “that’s incredible, that that power exists, and what can I do to harness it more?”.
And so I had that in my brain for a long time. And then a few other things happened. There were lots of stories in the news about parents hurting their kids, or killing their kids. And there was a particularly awful one in Melbourne about a girl called Darcey Freeman, who was two years old, and whose father dropped her off the side of the West Gate Bridge. I lived in Melbourne at the time, and it was just the kind of story that stops you, that genuinely stops your day and makes you think. So I thought a lot about that and I thought about how these stories aren’t just distant myths that have nothing to do with us. These things do happen. And there’s something very true and human at the core of them.
And then I started to read a lot more about the Darcey case, and there’s this report in it where one of the kids in the backseat, her brother, says to the father when he gets back in the car, “Dad we have to go back, because Darcey can’t swim”. And it just hit me in that moment that there’s a combination of knowing and innocence inside that. That little boy has a sense that something very very wrong is occurring, but he also doesn’t really have any sense of what this will mean for his sister, his family, his own life. And I felt like that entirely is the kid’s perspective, and it was a really helpful way in to understanding what was going on with these kids in Medea, where they are incredibly central to that story and yet so peripheral. What if I tried to enter the story through them? So all those things collided into this idea.
And then did you take it to Kate at that point?
No I took it to Belvoir first. I was running a company called the Hayloft Project and Hayloft was quite excited about it but we knew we couldn’t make it ourselves, manage children, all the legal restrictions, we just didn’t have the resources. So I took it to Belvoir, I’d been an associate with them, and really I just pitched what I just explained to you to them. And they were pretty curious – I think they wanted more, but there really was no more, it was totally a whim, in a way. It was an instinct in me that knew that that would be interesting but couldn’t offer them any more reasons. Amazingly they said yes, and that’s when Kate came on board – I spoke to her and I knew that I needed a writer to help shape the project once we’d got the kids to start to explore.
So the kids were quite central to the devising?
Absolutely. We began with a series of improvisations around the central structure of Medea. So if Medea is the onstage and our bedroom is the offstage, then we just started to figure out, “if that’s happening somewhere else, what’s happening here?”. And “how much do these boys know?” was essentially our starting point. How much do they know about where Jason is, and what’s happening with their parent’s relationship, and what they think is going to happen to them. And I don’t mean in any sense their death, because they never see that coming. How could you? But are they imagining where they’re going to live next, or that their parents are going to get back together? So we really we just worked through those things.
One of the questions I keep returning to is how you relate to Medea as a character? “Do you see her as a wronged woman, the villain of the piece?” But it’s even more complicated than that, because not only are you relating to her as a character but you’re relating to her through the eyes of these children.
I spent a lot of time working on Medea myself and I guess for me the main thing with her was, through the eyes of the kids, to think about her as a mother first and foremost. And I think that a lot of people don’t think about her in that way. It’s easier to think about her as this sort of wronged woman, this witch. It’s easier to hold on to the darker aspects of her. I was really curious about how her love could lead her down that path, and made a conscious attempt to complicate her, which I do with all of the female protagonists in my work. And that’s what draws me to work as well, looking for strong and complex women. And so I really wanted us to see how broken she was, by what Jason had done, how absolutely isolated. But I was always aiming for that final moment to be an act of love and I think it is, and I think that’s why it’s so complicated to watch in a theatre. Because she’s not angry – she is deep down, but it doesn’t feel full of revenge as an action, it feels actually quite heartbreaking, an attempt to do what she thinks is best for the kids and for her.
That’s also something we keep coming back to: how do you build up to that act? Because we do see examples of it in the world around us of parents being able to kill their children but we can’t really relate to it, so it becomes a fascinating insight into something you hope you’ll never feel.
But I think that’s the beauty of being an actor and being a theatremaker – to some extent that’s why we do these things, is to try to understand and to have some sense or imagine what that might be. That’s certainly what draws me to those acts. And I really – and this is quite controversial for some people – but I believe that we’re all capable of those things. They’re not so far away from you or I. I don’t really believe that anyone is inherently evil and when you take that explanation away, then you have to start to think about how a woman like me might end up in a situation like that. What could possibly lead me there?
And then at the same time you only had Medea on stage in these glimpses. So you have to develop this complicated persona that the audience can relate to but only in those brief moments?
That’s such a hard role. Blazey Best was extraordinary, she really had to bring the whole Greek play with her on stage in those tiny moments, but also do an enormous amount of work off stage to put that journey together. You’re right, it is so piecemeal in a way, our experience of it. I think it was also really hard for Blazey, she has two little boys, I’m sure that she’s gone to places that I as a director will never fully appreciate or know in terms of that process, which brings us back to how amazing and crazy actors are to do what they do.
The other question that we keep circling around – because the reason we’re doing this series is that we’re doing this production of Medea - is that this story keeps coming up in contemporary Australian theatre and storytelling all over the world. So why do contemporary audiences keep returning? To Greek myths generally and to this myth in particular? And what was the hook for you?
I was really conscious that these stories existed in our world, that they aren’t these fables about gods and stories that have nothing to do with us at all. The dilemmas inside them are very real and very human and still alive and well in Australia definitely, if not the world at large. I think that the Greeks used these myths to talk to each other about who they were and how they wanted to be as a society. We can do that too. I guess that’s always why my myths are updated as well – not that I would even know how to do a traditional version of a Greek myth but I can’t imagine why you would. That makes it a museum piece, something quite distant. And for me the pleasure is in how alive and real and immediate they are now.
Did you feel like you were having those conversations with people after the production about how it resonated?
People came and told me some horrific stories about things that had happened to them as kids or what was wrong with their mum when they were growing up. There’s something about how real those kids were, how intimate that space was, and how authentic those kids were that really touches an audience in a particular way. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly people were experiencing and in a way I’ll never entirely know because of how I see the show, which is complicated as its maker. But I think that you really felt like you were in the room and those kids were very truly playing as kids in that space, and you were sharing in that. And there’s something about how intimate and true that was that unlocked things as well. That made that final act all the more affecting.