“We’re doing something that’s never been done,” Neil Armfield explains as he and co-artistic director Rachel Healy tee up a video call with Internationaal Theater Amsterdam – because it wouldn’t be a piece of pandemic art without a reference to Zoom.
With the Netherlands under lockdown, its empty stalls offer a glimpse of the world beyond Adelaide. Theatre is about “unity of time and unity of place”, ITA creative director Wouter van Ransbeek tells us via webcam, but tonight we can at least try for unity of time.
The distance between South Australia and Europe is further underlined when Armfield, briefly forgetting all the lockdown talk, asks why there is no audience on van Ransbeek’s end. Despite the masks, the calls to maintain social distance and the recent memory of snap “circuit breaker” lockdowns in Adelaide and Melbourne, we really are living a different reality.
This is Healy and Armfield’s second attempt to bring Australian playwright and director Simon Stone’s contemporary echo of Euripides’ tragedy Medea to Adelaide – an unsuccessful bid to make a Brooklyn production starring Rose Byrne and husband Bobby Cannavale the theatrical centrepiece of last year’s festival was a curious footnote in the ABC documentary Getting Their Act Together. Who knows what might have happened to the world in that alternate timeline, but in this one we settle in for a filmed version of Stone’s original Dutch staging with actors from Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Kings of War, Roman Tragedies).
When the feed does start in earnest, we see a wide shot of an all-white Amsterdam stage fill a giant, billboard-sized screen. Squinting from the dress circle, it almost looks like a regular stage, until the camera switches to a close-up and it becomes clear the audio is just out of sync (despite a pre-show delay spent trying to iron it out). A few split-second jumps in the video feed seem to solve the problem by the 20-minute mark and, all things considered, this is small potatoes for all but the native Dutch speakers in the audience – the rest of us are following the surtitles anyway.
We meet Anna (Marieke Heebink) and Lucas (Aus Greidanus, Jr), a pair of ex-partners, former colleagues and co-parents who are tentatively reunited after a year’s absence. The dialogue offers backstory by drip feed: there has been a brief spell of institutionalisation, a betrayal of trust, another woman (Eva Heijnen). These are two people whose lives remain enmeshed even as their relationship is irretrievably changed (Scarlett Johansson’s words in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story come to mind).
Undaunted, Anna is determined to wrest the pieces of her life back into place even as it becomes clear the fractures in their relationship predate her own decline and implosion. As their history is gradually filled in, we learn that Anna was originally the more experienced, more brilliant one before a years-long power shift left her diminished, invisible and furious. Lucas, on the other hand, actually looks younger, the shit. But it felt worth it, because through his dependence their future felt secure – until an accidentally-intercepted sext from a younger woman shattered the illusion.
So, as a column of gently falling ash piles in the centre of the stage, Anna eventually resorts to acts of violence – first by poisoning Lucas, and later through a great, fiery filicide we always know is coming. Is it vengeance? Or an effort to reassert control and agency in the most devastating and final way? It’s both.
It’s difficult to divorce from the current Australian context; watching the erasures and indignities inflicted upon Anna echoes the many painful, infuriating reminders of how women young and old are used, assaulted, discarded and gaslit in our homes, workplaces, and parliament. Despite Anna being the one with blood and ash on her hands with this most grave, transgressive act, in the end Stone seems to point the finger rather more broadly.
When the festival program was announced last year, it was difficult to predict the atmosphere in which this series of international livestreams would land. With abundant live, in-person theatre once again occurring around the city, such a workaround now feels like a relic of another time or place, an unwelcome reminder of just how inoculated we’ve been from the death tolls, endless lockdowns and society-wide trauma visited upon most of the world.
We might be one of few cities on Earth where the legality of dancing is our most pressing issue, but this unusual night at the theatre reminds us there’s still plenty of darkness and pain in our world – and it’s not limited to coronavirus and internet connections.
Medea was performed at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam and livestreamed to Her Majesty’s Theatre on March 4 as part of the Adelaide Festival’s Live From Europe series.
Read more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.