Interview: Dictynna Hood Talks Debut Stage Play Medea of the Islands

Award-winning writer and director Dictynna Hood has seen great success with her film work, most recently ‘Us Among The Stones’, and is now returning her attention to the stage. She’s set to bring a rehearsed reading of her debut stage play, Medea of the Islands, to the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on the 28th November 2019 (tickets here). In preparation, I caught up with her to talk all things writing for screen and stage and all things Medea of the Islands…

Your debut film feature Wreckers found big names and considerable success. What has inspired you to delve into the realm of theatre now?

I started out directing theatre as a student, and have directed three Greek tragedies Alcestis and The Bacchae and Oedipus – recently I have been watching more plays than film as I have been very much enjoying the live experience of being in the same space as the actors – sharing an experience with them – as an audience – while still loving the cinema experience of watching actors in a different way (the landscape of the face and eyes you get in film!) – so this is a return to theatre…  

Writing the animation short Through the Hawthorn is named as an influence in your writing of Medea of the Islands – how has making the leap from an animated exploration of psychosis over to a play developed your interest or understanding of the subject matter the pieces share?

In fact I wrote the story outline for Medea of the Islands before I wrote Through the Hawthorn.  Both of these pieces were supported by the Wellcome Trust and both work with research and interviews with people who have suffered from psychosis as well as doctors and psychiatrists.   The difference is that Medea of the Islands emerged as a story outline before actually undertaking research, whereas the story for Through the Hawthorn emerged from the research I undertook.   I think that many writers are interested in psychosis because writing is itself a form of psychosis in some ways.   One of my main themes as a writer is the subject of family, and both Medea of the Islands and Through the Hawthorn feature mother-son relationships but in very different ways.

Medea of the Islands takes shape as a ‘modern retelling’ of Medea’s tragic story.  How modernised is her story here, and how much of the original detail remains intact?

Very little remains intact from the original but if you do know the original you will see echoes.   Two of the key differences are: the relationship between Nina and Nate in Medea of the Islands is not anything like the relationship between Jason and Medea in Medea. and a second crucial difference is that the original Medea is not psychotic at any time.    You can see some glimmers of the original in this version but it is not an adaptation – it is an influence and a response perhaps. One element which is similar to Euripides’ ‘Medea’ is that Nina my main character increasingly feels herself to be an outsider on the island and this is an element in her story.   

Am I right in my assumption that this take on Medea is a present day mother living in times which are so markedly under-equipped to deal with the demands of poor mental health?

No – it’s not really about that.   It’s about a mother who somehow enters a very dark place for a variety of reasons, and it is an examination and exploration of family relationships and madness – and it is about the taboos around what it is to be a ‘good mother’.   The mental health services do figure in the play but it is not a critique of the health service or mental health service.   Perhaps we live in a society as a whole that is not equipped to deal with poor mental health, but this story is more about personal relationships.

Medea of the Island is billed as ‘exploring how a mother can, and can’t, shield her children from her own battle with psychosis’ – such a story is quite unique within the current saturated field of work about mental health, which is primarily focused on young people and young males in particular. Were you conscious of wanting to look at mental health from the angle of motherhood or were you drawn to the story and the woman first and foremost?

I was drawn to the story and the woman first and foremost.  I am also interested in how we project onto others some of our own problems and how family histories can affect different family members.   Through the Hawthorn does focus on a young man.   Medea of the Islands takes a very different journey indeed.

We’re told that Medea of the Islands is ‘a lyrical exploration of motherhood, myth and madness’. The tale of Medea is of course a traumatic one which carries the inherent ability to shock and appall – does your take on the tale seek to retain that shock-factor? 

I think it’s a very different journey from the original Medea but it retains the horror of the event itself.  I did not particularly write it to have a shock factor, but there is an inevitability about the story which I think will be both horribly compelling and thought-provoking.   There is also humour – as in the original Medea – that leavens the horror and the gripping nature of the story.

Myths are slippery creatures – is there any exploration of the ambiguity surrounding Medea’s story in this play?

Yes in that the original Medea is a woman seen from the male point of view – shocking and terrifying – my character Nina is perhaps seen with empathy because she indeed does suffer from psychosis – this is not a ‘get out’ clause for Nina – it is just what the play is exploring.    It also explores motherhood, and it also enters the sphere of domestic relationships.   There is a fragmentary quality to the play that I hope will allow people to see different things in it.

This performance of Medea of the Islands is a rehearsed reading and an early outing in the overall process – how do rehearsed readings benefit the overall process in creating new work?

I am a huge fan of rehearsed readings as a writer.   They allow an audience to engage with a piece and give their thoughts and responses, before the script is completely ‘fixed’.   Even without commentary from the audience at the end, you can immediately feel what is working and what is not about pace and content.   The process of working with actors for a day on a show and understanding the take on the characters from an actor’s perspective (from within) is invaluable for a writer also. With this play we discovered already that many people both actors and audience have an interest in mental health problems, it is rare not to know someone who has been touched by some kind of mental difficulty at some point in their life, and sharing the work at an early stage can be insightful both for writer, audience and actors.

You are both writer and director for your work. How does the dual-role ultimately benefit or impact upon the work made in your view? Do you feel a greater sense of cohesion when the work is reliant on one vision?

I don’t always write and direct – I am not sure if I will direct Medea of the Islands final production as yet. I think that there are benefits and downsides of writing and directing your own work – I think it can work really well for film where the pictures are the story – that cohesion of one vision – with theatre I am not so sure – with another show I am working on there has been a huge benefit of aerating the piece with the views and energy of a different director – having said that Medea of the Islands is an intimate and poetic piece that might benefit from the writer-director vision – so we shall see!

With this being your second work (correct me if I’m wrong!) looking at psychosis, what specifically draws you to the subject?

As I said, I think that writing is a sort of psychosis.  I have been interested in the subject since directing The Bacchae many years ago.   There is a thin line between visionary and mad…   and how society deals with its visionaries. I do know many people who have been impacted by mental difficulties within their families also.  

The reading will be followed by a Q&A with yourself and the cast. What do you take from such opportunities to engage directly with audiences about your work?

I love a Q&A – both as an audience member – and on the other side as a writer and director.   I just love to share and explore what people are getting from the work – and as an audience to other director’s Q&A’s I love hearing about the process of creating the work and learning from it for myself.

And finally, what have been the biggest challenges and triumphs in the process of creating Medea of the Islands so far and what excites you most about the next step?

It was a very, very hard piece to write – or rather to begin writing. I avoided writing it for a long time. Eventually I wrote it in an intense short burst and became a little psychotic whilst doing so. We had a reading of it last year, which showed me the potential of the piece, and also the humour of it, as well as the power – and I hugely enjoyed working with the actors on that day – so again I am hugely looking forward to working with actors on the show, and bringing it closer to an audience.    

So there you have it! Remember, the rehearsed reading of Medea of the Islands, followed by Q&A takes place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on the 28th November 2019 – you can find tickets here.

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