What initially drew you to Medea?
It was the next show I worked on after The 7 Stages of Grieving and there was a sense of looking at key issues that the Indigenous community were dealing with, but looking at it in a more tangential sense. Rather than writing a play about domestic relationships and violence in the home, I thought there had to be a better way of saying it and that was something that takes the ideas of spirituality and location and difference. And so Medea was that story. And I was always drawn to the Greek stories – I like the narratives that they have and in some respects Medea is the flipside of the Oedipus story. Oedipus is a story which goes, “here’s the man’s journey into demise and tragedy”. The women’s story for me is Medea, in the very public and popular kind of way.
So the racial intersection was always a part of it then?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Well I mean it’s in the original story. If you think about Medea and where she comes from and how her difference, her magic, her sense of being different to Jason and her commitment to him, there was always a sense that she was never Greek. And so the racial difference is built into the relationship. And I then chose to look at some kind of cultural difference, between saltwater and desert community.
You chose to keep the Gods as a mechanism on stage, which a lot of people, when reworking it, take out. Was that part of that spirituality?
Yeah. That sense of the spirit of the land and because I think there is something to the question of “what energy is Medea tapping into?”. Otherwise it becomes a very venal revenge story. I think there’s something to her saying “No. I did this for you. I used my sense of land and my spirituality and my place to advance you, Jason, and us. And now that you have gone back on that, or created an infidelity”. In the classic Greek story, Jason's infidelity is to marry the princess and to go off in that way, and leave Medea behind. In mine the infidelity is one about violence and alcohol and to cheat on Medea or to devalue their relationship through the domestic violence was part of what I was trying to get across as well.
Well my next question was about how you took out that infidelity in the sense of the classic Greek myth. So for you, it was a break of trust that didn’t require another person?
Absolutely. In the sense too that then the spirit, the land had some form in his madness. That he could not cope with the guilt of the thing that he had done and had asked Medea to do. She was quite happy to sacrifice it, she had more resilience in some respects than he did. And the idea of cycles of violence was the other part of it for me, that Jason had inherited as much from his father, and his father before him, these ways of operating and ways of being that he felt that he had to continue somehow, that that’s how his masculinity was manifest. Whereas she felt that she could pull strength from her lineage of women, this long and powerful thing that she could draw strength from. In the end, in the same way as the classic story, she rises above it. I used the Seneca more than I did the Euripides because the Seneca is a lot more blood curdling. And in the end she rises up on a dragon, if I remember correctly, it’s an extraordinary moment. There’s this whole idea that she’s able to say “Well, this is who I am, this is what I did, you deal with it”, that kind of strength is a very fascinating thing for me to look at. Because I think, “Wow, she did the unspeakable, but in the end it was all done to curse Jason for the rest of his life, for the rest of his days”. And that curse that I write, I use a lot of Indigenous funeral practice in an opposite sense. “I’m going to separate your bones, I’m going to speak your name, I’m going to do a whole lot of things that mean that when you die, you will find no peace in death. So don’t kill yourself. Because even that is not going to be peaceful for you”.
I thought it was really interesting taking the infidelity out because often in a contemporary context it can feel like a cautionary tale of “bitches be crazy” – he cheats on her and then she goes insane.
Sex is too easy. All that kind of stuff around relationships and sex. In some respects for me what he was doing in the classic story was not about the relationship but about the power. He denied the power of Medea in terms of what she had given him – her magic, her science, her way of being and her sacrifice - and said “I’m going to marry into this power base because that’s going to be better for our children, therefore for us in the end”. And in some respects in a modern context we don’t have that kind of power base, that kind of argument, because we don’t naturally think like that in the same way. I think that I’m still doing the same thing where he’s denying her sacrifice, her contribution to their social standing, and rejecting it through violence and alcohol, saying “it’s over, I’ve got to get out of here, I don’t want what you’ve got any more”. And that that’s in fact a bigger thing. What does it mean for her, who has sacrificed everything? She’s a woman without a home now.
You mentioned how as a contemporary audience we can’t relate to that politic marriage element to it. Why adapt it for a contemporary audience? What do you think the impetus is for contemporary audiences to keep seeing this story played out?
Well it’s the nature of all classic stories, isn’t it? Each generation finds a way of telling the story that reflects the particular time in which they’re living. So for me, talking to mostly Indigenous audiences – well I’d like to talk to mostly Indigenous audiences through that work – what does it mean to use a story that’s once, twice removed from their cultural experience. Number one, it’s based on a story that they may or may not know the details of. Number two, it’s in a theatre, which is already another step removed from the cultural experience of most Indigenous people. And so therefore we can talk about the issues or see the violence in a kind of distanced manner. Dealing with anything that has death in custody in it, as an Indigenous theatremaker, I think “Oh Jesus, you can’t tackle that directly”. It’s just too confronting, you have to have some responsibility to the audience that are coming to it. So all these distancing structures that are built into the piece are about that. The blackout poems, these fragments of images, are about putting that into the psyche of the audience member so that they can piece a whole lot of story together without needing a clearly, lockstep linear narrative to follow. There’s enough story there, but it’s a bit distant, taken in from that distance, from the outside.
How do you relate to her as a character? Do you see her as sympathetic, a wronged heroin, a villain?
Interesting. It’s hard, isn’t it? As a writer you want your sympathies to keep shifting throughout. Part of me thinks that she is both of those things, and that she’s allowed to be complex in that way. The danger is in dictating to an audience exactly what you want them to think – that becomes propagandous, it’s a bit too manipulative. What you want to do is place a whole range of things out there and ask, would I have acted that way? Maybe not, it’s very extreme, but I understand what motivates that kind of behaviour. So for me, you don’t want to judge her. As soon as you start to judge a character, then they become a mouthpiece for you for ideological reasons. For me, I think she’s both. I would not have done what she did. But she is, in my mind, a fictitious character who can go to an extreme position so audience members can experience that extreme without having to go there. So that in little minor ways, people think “how do you break a chain? How do you stop a chain reaction from occurring? To stop you from getting there?”. In some respects I’m a little bit less sympathetic to Jason. I feel like he, in my writing more so than in Seneca or Euripides, that he’s a little inarticulate and a little too passive in the world. He doesn’t take agency for change where Medea does take agency for change. She’s the key, she’s the one. Watch her.
It’s interesting that you say that, within our take it’s sort of like this romantic comedy gone wrong. Jason is that “nice guy” who is so passive, would describe himself as being in the friendzone. And I totally agree, I sympathise with him so much less.
He’s not active. He’s just piss weak. Even in the Euripides you feel like saying “look, mate, just articulate what you really want. She’s tough – tell her, hey look love, I’m going to marry this woman for political purposes, but we’ll still keep our relationship and our sons and all that kind of stuff and so be it”. And that’s a really powerful thing. It’s interesting – the other thing to always think about is that as soon as you put a child on stage, suddenly the dynamic in an audience changes. Different critics like or dislike that. As soon as you put a child on stage, people gasp. I loved Annie-Lou Sarks’ production, with the children playing. That’s interesting to flip that around, looking at what’s going on outside and what’s happening in that room.
To think about that consequence for those children?
What I like about the position of that is that, nowadays where people only have one or two children if they’re lucky, that cotton-wooling of the children and the removal of any kind of issue that might test their resilience even is very present. Whereas the other productions are often about the mother and the reversal of the motherly instinct, Annie-Lou’s production was actually saying, what do the children think about this? Well god, no one’s actually really thought about that, they just get killed.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Yeah. And that’s a very, very 21st century ideal. What do the children think? Who knows? Let’s put the stage inside out and find out.