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A Medea for our times

Three new versions of the Greek tragedy Medea are being staged at various theatres in north (The Cock Tavern and The Round House), west (The Gate) and east London (The Arcola) this summer. Corinna Lotz caught up with the directors of Product Medea 4.0, to ask them what led them to revive Euripides’ shocking story of infanticide, first performed in 431 BC.

Maja Milatovic-Ovadi
Maja Milatović-Ovadia

Maja Milatović-Ovadia and Saša Rakef, the two writer-directors, first met by chance at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London through a mutual friend from Serbia. They collaborated on Maja’s project, Blood, based on the myth of Dracula before transporting the ancient myth of a woman who kills her own children into today’s world of corporate PR and marketing.

Saša Rakef
Saša Rakef

Saša’s play, Home, was nominated for the Best Slovenian Play of 2007. She is co-founder of the PreGlej New Writing Platform in Slovenia and is a founding member of Marvelous World Wide, which presented Product Medea 4.0 at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern Theatre.

“In Serbia and Slovenia, directing is considered mostly as a male job,” Maja explains. “Usually the director is a man, and the ‘dramaturg’ – the term for the assistant director – is the female, who researches and edits the texts. Female theatre directors are not the norm, but it was natural for us and we believe that eventually it will be for society at large,” says Maja, who is artistic director of the new writing project at the National Theatre, Belgrade.

Working in partnership has been inspiring, says Saša. “What has been amazing for us has been the running dialogue we’ve enjoyed in making the play. We created the concept together and then wrote the text. It has been valuable – such a great collaboration, such a joy! You constantly have someone to share your thoughts and opinions with. It has been a very rich, long and smooth process.”

They developed their concept about a year ago and since then it has been changing constantly into different formats and through the Internet. Product Medea 4.0 was streamed live over the Internet in real time and was performed in tandem with web-based content.

“We began the process in Serbia. Then there was a minute-long performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama here in London – a brief snap – which was then taken back to Serbia. Next we developed a site specific performance with a youth theatre group and this piece toured. A burlesque ‘3.0 version’ followed. Finally, Product Medea 4.0 was staged at the Cock Tavern theatre in Kilburn in June.

“For me, the whole idea was inspired directly by my personal experience of moving from Slovenia to London. I wanted to discover political, socially-engaged theatre in London,” Saša explains. “We wanted political theatre but not politically correct theatre – not just shouting slogans,” Maja interjects, “to deal with social issues through the medium of theatre, to raise questions, to give views from another perspective. To raise questions, but not necessarily answer them.”

But what interested them about Euripides’ Medea? Saša always wanted to delve into why tragic stories get such great attention in all forms of art, she says. The whole history of the myth and its representations, in the theatre, film, music and painting intrigues her. It has rarely been well received throughout its history.

”I don’t see Medea as just a story of jealousy and revenge on an intimate level, but rather as a strong social comment – something which is rarely put across. The horrifying act [of infanticide] takes over. She is an extremely tragic figure. She could be seen as a great example of how tragedies can be exploited. How tragedies are used to create a profit.

Victoria Groves, Jo Faith, Nikki Squire, Laura Pradelska, Ishai Jabob, Alexandra Thoros

“In Product Medea 4.0 we touch on the theme of the status of a foreigner who is nobody until she marries a local hero and the power structures and the political structures that in some ways have betrayed her. She was exploited – this does not justify her act by any means. But there are some parallels between today’s first and third world.”

Maja asks: “Under such circumstances what kind of political action do you take. Medea reacted in a ‘terrorist’ way. It was not a peaceful process! Would she have achieved anything with a peaceful process? We’re looking at the causes of terror and violence. If you take out other means, people do desperate things because there is no way out. Medea is not only a victim. There is a twist. She is a tragic heroine but she is also a murderer. She doesn’t want to be a victim in Euripides nor in our play but the corporations need a victim and make her into one.”

Maja adds that some refugees from former Yugoslavia have seen the play as a metaphor for how their homeland was stripped out by foreign intervention and how the country was presented to conform to the images of outside powers. "We’ve had good feedback from friends who are active in NGOs who saw the play. On the one side they try to build up refugees’ confidence and tell them not to feel like victims, but on the other side, to raise money, they have to play the victim game. It’s quite schizophrenic.”

Product Medea 4.0 does not focus on gender issues that some might see as central in Medea. What interests Saša is that Euripides was never liked and was socially unacceptable. “In our play the public relations people and the Chorus are very unacceptable but they are portrayed as nice and loveable people. The play evokes a lot of laughs which I interpret as people appreciating the paradox in this.

“It is an act of resistance, because in the end she realises she has been made a victim in order to be exploited. So she wants to destroy the image of her as a victim that has been made of her. But as soon as she is a murderer, she becomes yet another product. And no one asks why she did it.

“Very often in our society we forget the question why and just watch the spectacle, the effect of the crime. Is Medea the ‘female role’ version of Hamlet? West End productions of Medea tend to be about great staging, great costumes, lighting, scenography, the social status of going to the theatre, rather than serious discussion after the play and the real issues in the production.”

Maja feels that people tend to see only the surface, due to the need to sell everything. “Moral values are blurred. The good is what sells and the bad is what doesn’t. Humans are allowed to trample over dead bodies as long as it makes a profit. This is a 20th-21st century issue that everything is reduced to marketing and profits.”

Yet she remains optimistic. “Today’s corporate bureaucracy hides the responsibility of individuals. People become detached from the problem that way – they feel powerless or paralysed. But things must and will change.”

7 July 2009

Product Medea 4.0 written and directed by Saša Rakef and Maja Milatović-Ovadia will be staged at Camden Fringe at the Roundhouse Studio Theatre, Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8E August 6-8 at 4.30pm Box Office 08444 771 000

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