Queensland Theatre’s Medea

Review | When Greek Tragedy Becomes Child's Play in the Modern Day

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One of the best things about having a thriving theatrical scene in your home state is that there is always a new story to uncover, a new tale to see unfold, and a new ending that will solidify the viewing experience in your minds for months, if not years, to come. But then you have a work like Queensland Theatre’s ongoing production of Medea. Founded on the long-standing myth of its titular character, we have centuries of history around how her story ends – a tale of revenge, death and sorrow, solidifying it as one of the great Greek mythological tragedies. In this production, they don’t try and write a happier conclusion, or seek to retell a story any fan of ancient Greek history would know by heart. Instead, Medea revisits the story through the eyes of the oft-unexplored characters of her children – in the final hour until tragedy strikes – not fully aware of the feud between their parents and unknowing of what’s to come. Ultimately the surprise is not in its ending, but the journey to it.

Compared to everything else on the Queensland Theatre’s 2024 season line-up, Medea is certainly the most unique of its offerings, but while two young boys being boys in their bedroom sounds like it may be a rather dull experience, what results is a captivating 75-minute production where you see the bonds and conflict of brotherly love, some genuinely touching moments and some impressive stagecraft – juxtaposed against the narrative which frames the entire play.

Queensland Theatre's Medea - Hercules Cast - Imagery Provided - Credit: David Kelly
Queensland Theatre’s Medea – Hercules Cast – Imagery Provided – Credit: David Kelly

A Fresh Perspective, Through the Lens of a Child

Medea is a fusion of old and new, historical and modern. It’s a fusion that might sound a little jarring on paper or give indications the narrative has been rewritten in its entirety, but it seamlessly merges the different components. The backstory surrounding the characters of Medea, Jason, and the Golden Fleece, and the backstory of their characters are more or less the same – they take place in this chronology. However, we see the world through the eyes of 12-year-old Leon and 10-year-old Jasper, not as youth of ancient Greek, but as children of the 21st Century. And furthermore, in a world where the infamous, tumultuous conflict between parents takes place separate from them, outside their bedroom door, as they wait, locked in their room, for any word of what’s to come next – the audience only sees what they see.

They are boys of an era where the violence of the past has been replaced by friendly combat through foam dart blasters and wooden swords, the vernacular revolves around tropes of the day, they have a very cool Pokemon Sun & Moon poster hanging on the wall, and LEGO is still an absolute pain in the backside to clean up. The decision to structure the setting like this works on several different levels. It enables the young performers to be more authentic in their engagement with one another, and as someone who grew up with a brother (albeit a twin), the squabbles, and imaginative play were not only accurate but nostalgic to me.

It also enabled a more creative delivery of events for two children who were very much secondary characters in their own story, and depending on which version you hear, are portrayed very differently. These aren’t two boys just standing around chatting but behaving as children put in a stressful situation they aren’t sure the outcome of – pawns in a parental struggle. The approach of focusing the narrative on these two, works well.

Queensland Theatre's Medea - Hercules Cast - Imagery Provided - Credit: David Kelly
Queensland Theatre’s Medea – Cornelius Cast – Imagery Provided – Credit: David Kelly

Go In Knowing Something About Medea

Surrounding the narrative, you do not need to read and familiarise yourself with the entire fable of Medea. However, you should read at least the synopsis included in the program and additional signage scattered throughout the Queensland Theatre venue, as knowing the events is required to fully appreciate what takes place on-stage.

The boys are locked in their bedroom, unaware of the events that are going on outside, viewers are taken on a journey through their emotions and challenges through this unknown time – telling abridged tales of their father and mother (abridged, so knowledge of what took place and concepts like the “Golden Fleece” and the “Argonauts” are very valuable), squabbling over their parents and their father’s ‘special friend’, and the discreetly suspect actions taken by their mother whenever she enters the room, raising more questions among the two boys… until the final deed is done.

But even if it is a tragedy, the raw moments of an older brother caring for his younger brother, especially in one of the final scenes were one of the show’s highlights, highlighting a rich dynamic between the actors and just how much richness could be found in these characters over the span of an hour.

Queensland Theatre's Medea - Hercules Cast - Imagery Provided - Credit: David Kelly
Queensland Theatre’s Medea – Cornelius Cast – Imagery Provided – Credit: David Kelly

The Audience as Observers

The Medea experience begins the moment you enter the Billie Brown Theatre, where you come face-to-face with the quarter of the theatre which serves as the set, the boy’s bedroom, confined to what would aptly be described as a fish tank – floor-to-ceiling glass walls which contains the immaculately-detailed room the entire production takes place in. It is one of those “wow” pieces of the production for so many reasons.

From a staging perspective, it allowed a more detailed set with so many components that would have been hard to portray in a traditional staging setting, the voice capturing relied purely on microphone output, which was a little jarring at first but also meant that every word was crystal clear. Plus, I did hear a few noises at convenient times, indicating the boys were able to receive support for pacing. Having a closed-room environment also meant the lighting could be perfectly tailored to the bedroom. While many productions have been more creative with their practical usage of lighting, the technical implementation of this lighting set-up is one of my favourites of any theatrical production to date – the theatre dropping down into darkness and the only lit area, the staging, immersing you in its own closed off little world.

But it works even better at a production level. The “fish tank” design gives the impression that the audience members are just there to watch the events unfold, and while many already know of the tragedy to soon unfold, it enforces our roles as observers who can do nothing to influence their fate. But additionally, it provides an added layer of the performers being in that bedroom, and even if we can see through two of their walls, they cannot see the audience and gives the impression they are genuinely interacting with what would otherwise be a typical wall in their bedroom. It is such a clever way of maintaining that third wall between audience and cast.

Queensland Theatre's Medea - Hercules Cast - Imagery Provided - Credit: David Kelly
Queensland Theatre’s Medea – Cornelius Cast – Imagery Provided – Credit: David Kelly

Casting Successes

Queensland Theatre’s production of Medea features a small cast – the only consistent cast member being the titular character portrayed by Helen Cassidy, who has performed with Queensland Theatre in many productions in the past, in addition to many amazing productions across Queensland and Australia over the years. Despite being the titular character, she has limited time on stage given the shift in focus, but she makes each of those moments count, offering a level of emotion and questionable morality, which carries the audience across into the next stages of the narrative. Medea is the figure of lore, but her character is also very much a modern-day mother, and Cassidy reflects the dichotomy and conflicts of these traits well.

The other two cast members are, of course, the roles of Leon and Jasper, portrayed by two sets of local boys – dubbed the Hercules Cast (Jeremiah Rees and Edward Hill) and the Cornelius Cast (Orlando Dunn-Mura and Felix Pearn). I attended the performance featuring the latter cast, and given their ages, I was gobsmacked at how well they carried the show both physically, verbally and emotionally. With child performers, you can sometimes lower your expectations as they haven’t had the level of experience that other seasoned performers have. But in maintaining a consistent stage presence for the 75-minute run, they genuinely delivered a near-flawless performance. It is a testament to both the boys’ talents and the team at Queensland Theatre for getting them into a role that many would shy away from.

Queensland Theatre's Medea 1
Queensland Theatre’s Medea – Cornelius Cast – Imagery Provided – Credit: David Kelly

A Unique Experience That Adapts Greek Mythology In a Fresh Way

Medea is a bit different from the norm of what many theatrical companies offer its audiences, and I like that. Will it be to everyone’s tastes? Probably not, as it isn’t your traditional afternoon or night out at the theatre. But I would argue that what original creators Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks have written, and Queensland Theatre has presented, is something we need more of: unique experiences.

They have crafted a captivating twist on an iconic mythological tale, putting a new spin on it, and presenting relatively unknown characters in a rich and creative format. There are many ways to palate Greek mythology – from thick historical textbooks to the recent TV adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels on Disney+… and putting the context of the tragedy of Medea into having audiences watch her two children locked in their bedroom in the hour of their tragedy, is another way these iconic stories are being expanded upon and adapted for future generations to come. Overall, a well conceptualised, crafted and presented story which is worth considering if it sounds up your alley.

Final Score of Queensland Theatre’s Medea

4.5

Complementary tickets to see Medea were provided by Queensland Theatre and their publicity team to facilitate this review. Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts we were unable to attend the opening night, but instead attended the Saturday 18 May matinee performance, featuring the Cornelius Cast.

Medea is being performed at Queensland Theatre’s Billie Brown Theatre from now until 8 June 2024 inclusive, with performances from Monday – Saturday each week. Tickets are available to order directly through Queensland Theatre via their website as either single tickets or as part of their season tickets package. The website also lists dates for each cast to take the stage, if you wish to see a specific group of children, or want to see both casts tackle the play. Additionally you can download the show’s program digitally, and a comprehensive 36-page educational kit aligned with the Year 11-12 Drama Curriculum.

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