Medea Review: Why Ancient Drama is Still Relevant Today

Euripides’ Medea is a shocking tale of revenge, uniting cruelty and passion in a spectacle of female rage. This production of the ancient Greek classic by the Oxford University Classical Drama Society is no exception, excelling in conveying the depths of powerful emotion.

The Oxford Greek Play tradition goes back over 140 years, dating back to 1880. Ever since then, this triennial spectacle has marked an occasion to delve into the Greek classics, considering their relevance to modern audiences and the timelessness of their moral themes. 

Siena Jackson-Wolfe’s performance in the titular role was compelling, moving the audience in her portrayal of such cruelty and rage. What seems at first to be a display of deranged revenge becomes a demonstration of psychological power in this gripping portrayal of Medea – her impressive ability to show such cunning behaviour and intense passion left the audience noticeably astonished. Her cries and screams were chilling, reminiscent of those of Mia Goth in Pearl (2022), moving the audience with a display of such raw emotion. 

The performances of Jelani Munroe and Siena Jackson-Wolfe as the troubled husband and wife complimented each other beautifully – their portrayal of the roles of men and women in Ancient Greek society felt poignant to today, with Medea’s insistence on Jason’s unfulfilled duty as a husband and his infidelity providing fuel for her fire of anger and upset. She presents herself as a strong woman, yet Jackson-Wolfe’s performance hinted at a vulnerability that women have, readily devoting themselves to husbands that betray them. The subtleties to her performance gave this play a modern twist while remaining relatively loyal to Euripides’ original text – set in the city of Ancient Corinth, this production of Medea felt timeless. 

The costume design complimented the performance of the actors gracefully – Medea’s costume change from a basic vest and trousers in the first act to a decorative white dress in the second marked a point of inflection in the play, gracefully tying the two acts together while marking a moment of change. Medea’s wardrobe moved from masculine basics to one channelling her femininity – as the second act begins, she stops hiding and unleashes her true jealousy. 

The soundtrack accompanying the production was remarkable – the musicality almost resembled that of Hitchcockian anticipation, intensifying crucial moments of suspense by means of both silence and sound. The music blended into the dialogue with ease, complimenting the tragic action of the drama with a symphony of passion and suspense. Given the dialogue-heavy nature of Medea, the live string quartet was needed to maintain a fast pace to engage the audience. 

The set design by Elspeth Rogers was beautifully crafted, with the balcony providing the platform for the chorus to be a constant presence within the play. In particular, the lighting of the stage (by Alva Orr) stood out as impressive in its ability to set the ambience of the action on stage in a subtle yet recognisable way. The translucent light box to the left of the stage enhanced the action by creating a barrier between certain elements of the play and the audience – viewers see some darker elements of the play through a metaphorical lens with distance to mark the violence and vulnerability.

The sheer quantity of spoken Ancient Greek was undeniably impressive. However, one element of the production that may have troubled certain audience members was the screens used for translating the Ancient Greek parts of the play into English.  Sat towards the back of the theatre, the text was relatively difficult to read and so, it was necessary to focus more on trying to read the screens than what was happening on the stage itself. It also felt difficult to pinpoint the reasoning behind reoccurring plumes of smoke throughout the play other than creating eeriness – it manifested as somewhat distracting rather than adding to any suspense.

Some audiences might conclude that depicting Medea as a ‘feminist’ play is scarcely credible in light of her gruesome crimes as a mother, but at the crux of Medea’s character is a woman who has suffered at the hands of a patriarchal society. With justification, the audience may take her as a cruel monster, yet Rennie successfully communicated another side to Medea – the audience is invited to consider her as both villain and victim in a turn of events that evokes anger, outrage and astonishment. This complexity of Medea’s character was facilitated by Siena Jackson-Wolfe’s impressive ability to make the audience see humanity in her, and the ability of Jelani Munroe to portray such a hateable and careless husband complimented Medea’s rage. 

This production of Medea is commendable in its ability to move the audience through the power of dialogue. It ends abruptly in Medea’s shocking triumph, leaving the audience bewildered – she gains liberation and administers revenge, but at the cost of her own morality. She is transformed from the weeping figure of the play’s beginning into a cruel, vengeful woman as the curtain falls.

All in all, Medea excelled in all areas of production: from the powerful performance of the actors to the perfectly fitting stage design and music, this production is one to be admired for its ability to connect ancient drama to its modern audience.

Featured Image Credit: Olivia Cho