Black heat

Keith Gallasch

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Writer-director Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea is an uncompromising account of tensions between urban and traditional Indigenous cultures, represented by a woman caught between the two. This Medea lives on the land with her clan, falls in love with an Aboriginal man, Jason, who works for a mining corporation, and leaves her traditional life behind. Jason, haunted by his father’s failures and terrified of his own, soon wants to banish Medea to clan life, but not their son. Meanwhile an older woman from the clan arrives and demands Medea return to her cultural roots. Medea’s thwarted ambition, the loss of her husband’s love and the threat of being forced into a cultural abyss yield the inexorable logic of psychosis that drives her to murder her loved son rather than surrender him to the violent Jason.

As ever the grafting of contemporary fable onto mythology-cum-classic drama is a tricky business, especially given the very different cultures of origin. There are times in Black Medea when it works, the resonance between these disparate worlds pulses deeply; at other times the connection feels slight, or facile–Jason, in a miner’s helmet, as the raper of the land. Then there’s the matter of tone. Given the mythological foundation of the play, Enoch boldly eschews the characteristically engaging naturalism of many Indigenous productions for something almost operatic. This means that for Margaret Harvey (Medea) and Aaron Pedersen (Jason) much of the text is delivered white hot: states of being are immediately entered, the words intoned or belted out, bodies vibrate with frustration and anger. Harvey sustains this admirably. Pedersen (a fine, intimate screen actor) wavers, though when he hits his note his Jason is aptly both pathetic and frightening.

In counterpoint, the old woman (Justine Saunders) speaks quietly, conversationally, insistently arguing her case for Medea’s return, but also addressing the audience directly. She is the chorus, providing narration, speaking on behalf of a society and, at times, eerily voicing Medea’s thoughts when the distraught woman is beyond words.

The action is tautly choreographed and each scene framed as an image: in fact, the show opens impressively with a series of quick-fire still images sketching out the tragedy that will ensue–a potent, wordless chorus. Compounding the power of bodily images throughout the work is the sheer beauty of Christina Smith’s set as Rachel Burke’s lighting transforms it from enveloping cave to over-arching night sky and distant spiritual space. Inspired by Dorothy Napangardi’s painting Salt on Mina Mina, the set’s apparently metallic surface is patterned and punctured with holes through which light glows or radiates suggesting the otherworld of myth.

Jethro Woodward’s sound score works evocatively in its quieter moments, it too producing a sense of ominous otherness, but its heavier underlinings of the play’s climaxes sometimes pushed the production perilously close to melodrama, denying the requisite sense of interiority and consequence.

Reactions to Black Medea were extreme. The set and its deployment were uniformly admired, while the boldness of the play’s conception was debated, and the operatic inflection of the work seen as out of kilter with Indigenous theatre (including the director’s own)–Enoch’s version of Conversations with the Dead certainly unleashed intense pain and anger, but balanced outburst with introspection. When the fundamental premise of playing out a Greek myth with an Australian Aboriginal story is already a hard call, and when that tension is duplicated in big acting versus the chorus’ intimate naturalism, a subtle stage design and an overwhelming soundscore, not all of your audience is going take the trip to catharsis with you. For me there was much that was exciting and memorable about Black Medea, passages of fine writing that rose above the less inspired, striking imagery that fused body, set and wonderful lighting, and acting that, if variable, reached moments of wrenching intensity.

See interview with Wesley Enoch

Black Medea, writer-director Wesley Enoch, performers Margaret Harvey, Aaron Pedersen, Justine Saunders, Clive Cavanagh, Kyole Dungay; set Christina Smith, lighting Rachel Burke, composer Jethro Woodward; Malthouse at Company B, Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, April 13-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 8

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005