Actress Fiona Shaw has a way of making a small, disarming "hah!" just as the character she is playing is about to make an incendiary announcement. It has the effect of making Medea's plans to murder her children sound almost reasonable - at least, for the second it takes for your brain to register what she just said.
Laughter is by its very nature dispassionate, so a person with a sense of humor can't help but seem rational. That chuckle is key to blinding the local women of Corinth (not to mention the audience) to Medea's true nature. She is a sorceress of diabolical powers who will stop at nothing to revenge herself on her faithless husband.
Every aspect of Shaw's bravura performance is calibrated to make us believe a lie. Sometimes, it's the way Shaw stands. When Medea, clad only in a light dress and sweater, wraps her arms around her skinny torso, she seems too frail to carry out four murders. Sometimes, it's in Shaw's cadence. Medea speaks not in a torrent or a rush, but one deliberate word at a time.
Wow. No wonder this production of Euripides' Medea by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin is generating so much excitement among theater lovers. Following just four performances at the Kennedy Center, Medea will re-open next month for a 12-week run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway. The Washington performances sold out weeks in advance, and in the Kennedy Center lobby before Thursday's opening, scalpers were getting well above the tickets' $40 face value.
It's easy to see why. With his penchant for psychological realism, his emphasis on domestic stories, and his strong female characters, Euripides can seem the most modern of the three great Greek tragedians, which is why a present-day production makes so much sense.
Medea is an incisive and heartbreaking study of a shipwrecked marriage. Jason, the husband of the title character, has abandoned her and their two sons for a politically connected trophy wife, and the scenes in which Shaw and actor Jonathan Cake tear and chew at one another are mesmerizing and exhausting.
As Jason, Cake is nearly as splendid as Shaw, portraying a man who is both sexually magnetic and self-absorbed. One of the saddest things about the Abbey Theatre production is that it's clear that a few tattered remnants of love still exist between the couple. She still is crazy about him, and the chemistry between them still sizzles. When Cake looks in Shaw's eyes and holds her close, we can see the power that Jason exerts over Medea. We can see that he is tantalizingly close to winning her over once again and persuading her to give up her ghastly plans.
Then, inevitably, tragically, Jason says one word too much.
Tom Pye's set features a small, square reflecting pond on which the boys sail their toy boats. It also subtly reminds the audience that Medea left her family behind when she met Jason and fled with her lover overseas to Corinth. When he deserts her, she not only is without a spouse, but is homeless in a foreign land - from which she is soon to be exiled. On a deeper level, the water foreshadows the sacrificial cleansing that will occur.
As masterful as this production is, it is not flawless.
Director Deborah Warner seems to have contempt for the chorus of Corinthian woman, and as a result, doesn't use these characters well. These townsfolk come across as so groveling and nosy as to be almost sub-human.
When Medea declares (at some length) that she is about to kill her children, the chorus laments, but makes no effort to prevent the slayings. This creates a disconnect in the audience. Granted, this is how Euripides wrote the play. But it's odd that Warner didn't have the chorus try to restrain Medea or seek help, but be thwarted (perhaps by locked gates). Instead, one chorus member does an Irish step-dance on the grate above the room where the murders are taking place - as callous as it is pointless.
Yet, Warner does a great many things right; the murder scene is convincing enough that a woman in Thursday's audience sobbed audibly.
Best of all, she eliminates Euripides' deus ex machina. In his ending, Medea flees her husband's wrath in a chariot drawn by flying dragons.
But Warner knows there is no escape for either Jason or Medea. Instead, her production ends with husband and wife destroyed by their grief, unsure whether to blame or to comfort one another. They splash about in the pond, which serves as a metaphor for how they will spend the rest of their lives:
Unmoored, adrift and at sea.