The Volkstheater tackles the original woman scorned in Franz Grillparzer’s Medea
How do you create empathy for a mother who murders her children? With mixed success, judging from the Volkstheater’s production of Medea, an 1820 reimagining of the classical Greek myth by the renowned 19th century Viennese playwright Franz Grillparzer.
Famously dramatized by Euripides in 421 B.C., Medea is the eternal story of a woman scorned: A “barbarian” temptress from a strange land, Medea (Stefanie Reinsperger) meets Jason (Gábor Biedermann), an ambitious sailor from civilized Greece desperately seeking the storied Golden Fleece. With Medea’s help and protection, Jason returns home with her, the fleece and their two sons to reclaim his inheritance. From there, things go downhill: Ostracized as a threatening savage, Medea is forced to remain outside the palace walls with her loyal slave, Gora (Anja Herden). Jason then loses his interest to Kreusa (Evi Kehrstephan), the perfect young daughter of snobbish King Kreon, (Günter Franzmeier); befitting a Greek tragedy, madness and death for all is the only possible fate.
Hostility and Hospitality
Corbusian, brutalist architecture makes up the modern set, with giant slabs of grey concrete buttressing a wall of glass panels. Clever use of sound, electronics and somber lighting creates cinematic flashbacks, illuminating the dense plot and Medea’s state of mind. The panels change from opaque to clear at the touch of a button to reveal characters both dead and living, pushing Medea over the brink with relentless dramatic exhortations.
Casting was off, not least the unheroic, limp Biedermann as Jason. Reinsperger’s melodramatic Medea is as blonde and Teutonic as her tormentors (King Creon casually makes monkey noises at Gora), with only her full figure setting her apart from her slender rival Kreusa.
Medea’s ungainly attempts to learn the waltz and sing a classic Germanic song to impress her love are played for laughs, but elicit cringes rather than sympathy from the audience. The dark-haired Herden’s Gora was a scene-stealer however – her lines felt real and modern. I would have liked to see her take on Medea – subdued but still in touch with her smart, proud and passionate self.
As a bourgeois poet-librarian working for a vulnerable empire that had recently – barely – survived the Napoleonic Wars, Grillparzer feared the perils of ambition and human connection. Everyone in Medea is undone by the hypocritical savagery of a supposedly civilized world that repays Medea’s attempts to assimilate with banishment. Director Anna Badora draws a laudable but heavy-handed parallel to modern refugees, highlighting the unspoken obligations between host and guest, citizen and savage, mother and son.
A dish served cold
Humanizing filicide is a task shared by both director and lead: The horror of the children’s murder works as best as it can, with powerful explosions of grief from both Medea and Gora. Critically, Badora and Reinsperger draw from some deep well of shared female history, making the audience feel the pain of a smart, powerful woman left for a younger, better-connected model after giving her all to a lesser man, only to be exploited.
Greek myths, with their whims of gods, demigods and other mystical powers to explain the world, must be taken with a healthy dose of reason: How much is factual, how much interpretation, how much fabricated outright? How would we fare when the gods desert us and we have nothing left to lose? These are questions we mere mortals ask ourselves every day – while you may leave exhausted after two hours, giddy once free of the endless misery, Medea attempts to provide answers – missteps along the way notwithstanding. How very human.
performed in German with English supertitles
March 12, 19*, 29; April 11, 25, 28 at 19:30 (except March 19 at 15:00)
Additional dates being planned