The University Musical Society will be opening it’s third annual International Theatre Series with the Abbey Theatre of Ireland’s critically acclaimed production of Euripides “Medea.” This production ran on London’s West End a year ago, directed by Deborah Warner and starring the legendary Fiona Shaw.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of UMS
The pain of “Medea.”

“Medea” is an ancient Greek drama, written by Euripides and first performed 2,431 years ago. Medea was a powerful witch, and daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis. She fell in love with Jason, leader of the Argonauts, and helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her father. They fled together; becoming outlaws but sworn together in their love for each other. They found a friendly harbor in the city of Corinth. Jason managed to ingratiate himself to the King of Corinth, Kreon, who offered Jason is daughter’s hand in marriage, with the promise of a kingdom to follow. Although he had already sworn his everlasting love to Medea, who had since borne him two sons, Jason agreed to the marriage, promising Medea a comfortable existence if she would keep quiet and out of sight. However, meek and submissive were two qualities completely lacking in Medea’s character, and she was none too happy with Jason’s plans for their future. She exacted her revenge in such a way as only a witch and ex-princess from Colchis can, defying all law, natural or otherwise.

Euripides was born in Attica in 484 BC. He was a prolific playwright, writing 92 plays, though only 19 of these plays still exist. Although he is hailed, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, as one of the figures who made fifth- century Athens pre-eminent in the history of world drama, his work aroused great opposition and controversy based on his unorthodox portraits of women and his focus on the individual, as opposed to the community. Along with “Medea,” his most famous plays include “The Bacchae” and “Electra.”

Although “Medea” has been running for over 2,000 years (eat your heart out, “Phantom of the Opera”), The Abbey Theatre of Ireland is up to the challenge. The Abbey Theatre has been in continuous management longer than any other repertory company in the English speaking world. It was first conceived of by William Butler Yeats and two landowners in the west of Ireland, as a new theater that would produce plays “written with a high ambition, and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.” The Abbey has a commitment to present works of eminent foreign authors, but the primary objective is to provide a performance space for Irish dramatic writing.

This production of “Medea” is also a reuniting the dynamic forces of Irish born actress Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, one of the most acclaimed directors on the contemporary British stage. Shaw is one of the most controversial and exhilarating performers in Britain today. Most recently, she has ignited venomous criticism and rapturous praise by playing Richard II, the sorrowful English king in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Warner is a brilliant stage and opera director, best-known for her dazzling and daring takes on the works of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Bach, Berg, Beckett, Brecht and Ibsen.

For Jonathan Cake (Jason), this is the most difficult production he has ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Cake believes that “Medea” is a timeless masterpiece, catching the minds of audience members through every movement in history. “It is one of the greatest plays ever written,” Cake muses, “but it is unforgiving. I have never had to work as hard as an actor, and I have to have high energy every night, because this play just sucks energy.” Past productions of “Medea” that went on to receive critical acclaim were more traditional, with the actors speaking in strict verse. The Abbey Theatre’s production will be done in modern dress, which gives the drama a more contemporary feel, and allows the audience to more readily align themselves with the characters.

For, essentially, that is what this play is all about; What happens when emotions run high and people are put in difficult situations? Shaw’s interpretation of Medea the character will show audience members that there really is a thin line between love and hate, and the consequences of crossing that line can be horrific.

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