Tuesday 31st October, 2017 at Leeds Carriageworks Theatre.
Proper Job Theatre Company’s Medusa (a co-production with Square Chapel Arts Centre) is a prime example of a fearless piece of adaptation which is a slow burner and lands somewhere between impressively ambitious and over- ambitious. The narrative presented is certainly emotive, telling the version of Medusa’s story which presents her as a victim; she begins as a sweet and carefree innocent until she becomes an object and victim before swiftly transitioning into a tormented soul and an object of fear. Elizabeth Harborne plays the title role with great skill and her performance is by far the strongest element of this production; her depiction of Medusa’s transformation is very moving and she holds the audience in the palm of her hand at the most crucial moments. The sweet innocence transforms well into the broken shell of a woman deeply wronged and her beautiful voice also provides some of the most evocative and haunting moments of the production.
While Medusa begins with indications of being set in the distant past, as expected, there are uncomfortable modern references interwoven throughout to highlight the very topical nature of the story itself and Medusa is presented as some kind of omniscient cyber presence of fear and fascination in a futuristic world. Medusa’s account of her rape in the Temple of Athena is paralleled with more contemporary accounts of rape at a party for instance; when Medusa finds the courage to share her experience we are provided with insulting court scenes, upsetting scenes of mistreatment and pointed examples of the frustrating freedom of those in a position of power free to abuse without consequence. There’s an awful lot to praise in these choices – with the news currently and in recent months full of stories of abuse, it’s a powerful thing to sit and watch this production play out – and to catch you breath at some of the parallels brutally drawn.
Medusa is the debut stage play of poet Helen Mort, and that origin is abundantly evident, with mixed results. The piece is certainly poetic, moving and intelligent – the amount of ground covered is staggering as the play touches on themes of gender roles, masculinity, religion, identity and power to pinpoint a small few. Each theme is strung together through mythological and contemporary content and that works for the most part but the production often appears to reach towards performance art in its use of language and physicality, and it is some of that physicality and disjointed narrative structure that lets the production down in places. With so much line dancing amongst the narrative threads and perspectives, it feels like there’s just too much going on – the scenes with the priest in particular appeared to lack real gravity in relation to Medusa’a central story – the exploration of religion and lust makes sense within the broad premise, but there’s too much time spent dwelling on that hypocrisy to the detriment of the overall quality when more potent options are at hand.
Yet while there are issues with jarring clashes of past, present and future in a piece which also somehow captures timelessness through its subject matter, there are also some excellent projections to the future, where men are unfaithful via virtual channels rather than in person, but the implications about the capacity of men to betray women is very much emphasised from every direction. Harborne is supported by some strong talent in Gemma Hunt and Brendan Weakliam and they present a futuristic marriage in which the emotional trauma comes not from actions but from desire and the pair explore the idea of betrayal feelingly, with Hunt in particular inviting great sympathy.
The unstable structure is apt of course for a piece exploring the lesser opted for interpretation of Medusa’s story: an innocent assaulted and punished for her perceived role in the attack but while the jarring narrative structure is undoubtedly thematic, it does at times feel clunky and empty. Set design from Laura Davies benefits the piece via the use of a screen for projection which assists heavily in presenting the story and clarifying which narrative we are following for each scene – without the screen announcements, I’m not convinced that the many narrative pieces would have been clear as the multi-rolling is substantial and swift, as are the movements between narratives. There were some great set choices to be seen though, particularly the mocked up bed and the multi-functional wire blocks. Some of the visuals are definitely powerful and the cast handle the physical challenges well, but there are also times when the surreal movements seem lost and without reason and that lack of consistency in quality is a real shame, because the subject matter is worthy and deserves an explosive quality to achieve full impact.
There’s plenty to engage and in this production and the ambitious nature of the direction from James Beale offers some impressive visuals but at times the choices seem over-ambitious, with the end product falling short of the suggested intentions despite sharp timing. Mort’s writing is full of feeling and import and the cast offer the story up to us with some good dramatic performances, although as with various aspects of this piece, the quality of the performances are inconsistent, with cast members excelling in some roles but losing impact when donning the cap of another character. I think there’s work to be done with Medusa, but at the core of it, it commendably thrusts a glaring, grim repetition of history under the gaze of a contemporary audience and if we can easily feel the connections between an ancient tale and the problems still rife in the here and now, there’s a lot to think about on the drive home.