Medea, says actress Fiona Shaw, " is actually a play about someone trying not to murder their children. She tries desperately not to. " This is not the standard take on Euripides’s 2400-year-old tragedy of the sorceress helpmeet who revenges herself on her abandoning spouse by murdering his intended and hacking up the kids. But the Irish-born thespian, who has garnered so many British acting awards that her mantel must look like Julie Harris’s, won the 2001 Evening Standard Award for her fierce turn in the Abbey Theatre of Ireland production of the play, so she’s worth listening to. And according to critics who have described the modern-dress production in which she appears as Medea in a cardigan as " shockingly convincing " and " the kind of acute emotional experience that reminds you that you’re alive, " she’s even more worth watching. Boston audiences will get to do so next week when Medea comes to the Wilbur Theatre on one of only five American tour stops.
Actually, Shaw and her frequent director, Deborah Warner, both won Evening Standard Awards for their Medea, which was first mounted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2000 and then presented in London a year later. The pair’s prize-winning collaborations have included Electra, Hedda Gabler, a controversial Richard II in which Shaw played the deposed king, and a one-woman performance of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land that won two Drama Desk Awards. Speaking by phone from New York, where Medea played earlier this month, Shaw has this to say of the partnership: " You begin with an unknown commodity of a play, and you have to pick a play that’s impenetrable. I think maybe that’s the thing that we share: that the play should be very hard, because it’s only if the mountain is high that it’s worth the climbing. It takes many, many months, so if you knew how to solve it, you wouldn’t do it. You’d do the one you don’t know how to solve. "
Solving Medea seems to have boiled down to finding the connection between the heinous and the human. " I think what is interesting about the play, " Shaw continues, " is that I am no more or less Medea than anybody else in the audience. It’s not about a peculiar person, it’s about a person in peculiar circumstances. It’s not saying this is what people do every day, it’s saying this is how far people can go when circumstances are this severe. "
For those who have forgotten the back story: Medea, having defied her father and dismantled her brother to help Jason procure the Golden Fleece, has returned to Greece with him. They have been living in Corinth with their two young sons when Jason gets a better opportunity: marriage to King Creon’s daughter, Glauke, which he presents as beneficial to the whole family. Although he carries his have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too argument handsomely, Medea doesn’t buy it.
To Shaw, the story seems acutely relevant to today’s world and to America in particular. " In the play, Medea has done everything for Jason. I mean, it may be a warning, a signal, about loving too much, actually. She has given up everything, including her father, for him. She has nowhere to go. She is entirely dependent on him. And in that way, this country’s a very interesting country to do it in because so many couples come from different countries to America, and one of them gets along well in the country and the other doesn’t, and this often results in the disintegration of the marriage. "
The play, she points out, is " also pertinent because we praise famous people, famous lovers, for doing great deeds as Jason and Medea have done. We have made an entire culture out of romantic love being published and publicized. And the consequences of those loves going wrong are often more severe than the consequences of private love going wrong. "
As for remounting Medea in the wake of September 11, the actress says, " I don’t know that the play has changed. The world has changed, so the context has changed. I don’t want to make philosophical statements, but one does feel America is more open to tragedy; it understands what tragedy is. And the importance of tragedy [now she’s speaking less of current events than of the dramatic genre], ideally, is to be a source of compassion for people suffering, because happy endings leave you often with a rather empty feeling that your own life is not as happy as the happy ending you’ve just observed. Tragedy, in its looking down the abyss of the human soul, can be very comforting, because you are not alone. I think that when September 11 happened in this city that I’m in now, people could either become depressed or become enlightened by the hurt. Tragedy is a wonderful tool for that. I’m sure that’s why it was invented, to make sense of the obscenity of human behavior. And it does do that. It’s wonderful that you can dust down these 2400-year-old plays and they are able to reach out across the centuries. They are about human behavior, and that has not changed at all. We are only just not savages. "
But Shaw does not buy into the idea, as some productions do, of the infanticidal Medea as a barbarian. " What are barbarians? " she shoots back. " I’m Irish, and we’re barbarians to the English. And the English are barbarians to us. Now America has named new barbarians. Whoever isn’t you is a barbarian. I’m afraid civilization has always been a relative term. "
Of such modern Medeas as Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, one of whom drove her kids into a lake and the other of whom drowned hers in a bathtub, Shaw notes, " It’s not just confined to women. Men, too, kill their children. And it’s nearly always for the same reason. It’s never about the children. It’s about their relationship to the other person. If the other person kills the reality you were both in, the revenge is to forbid them to go ahead with the reality you both created. We are a funny old mix. We’re always trying to balance ourselves, so, in balancing, sometimes we do terrible things. In Medea, Jason says, ‘Love made you murder them.’ And she says, ‘So you might die of it.’ She’s dying of love, and she wants him to die of it. The Chorus says we should live calm lives and not get too involved with passion. And of course we can if we all become Buddhists. But we, as a culture, particularly now, celebrate high passion all the time. Every film, every book, and every piece of media attention is on passion. And the other side of passion is violence. "
In the hands of Warner and Shaw, asserts Benjamin W. Sampson in American Theatre magazine, " Medea’s murder of her children is the horrific act of a confident, rational woman torn apart by rejection. " Shaw responds, " That sounds rather cold, actually. But the play isn’t at all cold. " And sex, she says, is fundamental to the journey of the title character. " Jason says at the end [she paraphrases], ‘You killed your children for sex.’ Because his relationship to sex is completely different. He says, ‘I left your bed.’ And she says, ‘You think that’s nothing for a woman?’ And that is the crux of every divorce case we ever read about: the value of sexual affection for one is greater than the value of sexual affection to the other. Sex is either symbolic or it’s not. The moment one partner can say, ‘I love you, and sex is no longer exclusive with you,’ it’s either acceptable to the other party or it isn’t. This is the stuff of all our lives. And Medea represents a piece of it where it isn’t arbitrary who you sleep with, it’s fundamental. And to Jason it isn’t. "
Even oozing rejected sexuality, Medea is a formidable icon of the Attic stage. Indeed, Shaw is renowned for her uncompromising performances of roles from the classical repertoire (not to mention her Evening Standard and Olivier Award–winning turn in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal). Even her film roles have tended toward the arty, from My Left Foot and The Last September to the recent Clare Peploe film of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love. Not so the role in which many moviegoers would recognize her, the makes-Medea-look-like-Marmee villainess Petunia Dursley of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — which pinched paean to Muggle blindness Shaw reprises in the forthcoming Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Says the actress of her brief turns as Harry’s uncharitable, non-wizarding aunt: " I think you’re a functionary. Harry Potter is a wonderful tale, and the tale needs the Dursleys. You have to have the wicked stepmother to have the story. But you’re a sort of condiment to this enormous meal of Harry Potter. So the global fixation on the story is not necessarily matched by our experience of it. I spent many more man hours on Medea, but many, many more people will see Harry Potter. "
Broadway in Boston presents the Abbey Theatre production of Medea at the Wilbur Theatre October 23 through November 3. Tickets, at $25 to $67, are available at the Wilbur box office or through Ticketmaster at (617) 931-2787.