It begins like any other romantic comedy. Boy meets girl. Boy brings girl home. Boy is appropriately flustered at having girl in his bedroom, enough to be adorable but not enough to imply he may be inexperienced in bed. Girl is appropriately elusive, enough that we yearn for more but not enough to raise questions. Boy leaves to fetch wine. Girl waits naked for boy to return.
When boy, however, refers to girl as “like, a real girl?”, before asking that she cover her breasts with the bedsheets so as to perfect a post-coital image worthy of the silver screen, it becomes apparent that this will not end the way the movies do.
All About Medea, the latest production from Montague Basement, is a re-telling of the Euripedes tragedy, written and directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari (Procne and Tereus) and produced by Imogen Gardam. Set entirely in the bedroom-lounge area, the play situates itself in the present, complete with references to Minions and Frozen and a copy of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals on the dining table. In the repurposed apartment that is Old 505 Theatre, we could actually be sitting in Jason and Medea’s living room. The uncomfortable intimacy of this sets the tone for a glimpse into a turbulent relationship.
Christian Byers (Puberty Blues, Procne and Tereus) is terrifyingly likeable as ‘Nice Guy’ Jason. Far from a fleece-fetching hero, this Jason is a salesman at a wine cellar whose conquests extend no further than all-night X-Box marathons. All too often are misogynistic characters played as cartoonish monsters, when what makes misogyny so frightening in the present day is how casual it has become, so deeply inscribed in discourse that it often cannot be seen until it is too late. Byers plays a Jason who makes every effort to do what he thinks is Right—as a man, provider, boyfriend, and father—but in doing so constantly perpetuates ingrained misogyny. It is believable, and disconcertingly authentic, and he is all the more loathesome for it.
Lulu Howes, in contrast, is at times something ethereal, just a little out-of-this-world. She begins as the perfect image of the mysterious, funny, beautiful love interest and fights tooth and nail throughout to escape from that role. Typically, violent femininity is rationalised as either insanity, evil, or the result of victimisation. It is none of these things that leads Lusty-Cavallari’s Medea to commit her final act of violent liberation. This Medea eschews all definition or categorisation, a complete and necessarily messy female character. Her soliloquy to her newborn child, her realisation that, try as she might, her life will never be about herself, is heartbreaking. Her final moments, whilst not forgiven, become frighteningly relatable.
It’s clear All About Medea is a play created by film buffs. Both diegetic music and extradiegetic soundtrack is played from the same speakers, and the television set in the corner is used both by characters and a demarcation of scenes, situating the play in an uncanny valley between film and theatre. It is grand and cinematic despite its small, realist setting, equal parts ridiculous dance sequences and sad, unglamorous sex scenes. It is, as Jason remarks (on the subject of a Peter Gabriel concert), “a spectacle, but, like, subdued”.
Scene transitions are accompanied by an increasingly saddening slideshow of Hollywood’s women as they, too, fall madly in love, settle down, have families of their own. As All About Medea goes on, it seems to slip further and further away from that romantic ideal, reaching a point of uncomfortably raw realism. At points I found myself compelled to look away, look down, anywhere but at this gruesome scene—until I realised that what compelled me to avert my eyes were the points at which the script lifted the veil on the romcom and portrayed things as they are, with the real life implications that romcom tropes have. More than once, too, I caught myself thanking the heavens that I’m incredibly gay—an oddly affirming reaction I did not expect from a retelling of Medea.
This, I think, encapsulates the core message of All About Medea. Perhaps moreso than it addresses the role of the filmic women to exist for anyone’s happiness but her own, All About Medea presents the heteronormative romantic script in its most pure and gruesome form. This is what happens when two flawed and realistic humans attempt to fit their lives into a cookie cutter storybook ending. Jason does not force Medea to stay with him, nor bear his child (though certainly Medea does not consent to it fully of her volition)—she is coerced into a life which constricts her to the role of girlfriend, mother, carer, martyr, because that’s how it’s supposed to go. Whilst the production, rightly, has far more sympathy for Medea than for Jason, Medea is still culpable and held to account for the decisions she makes. She is not a victim, but someone who has been taught that a woman must be about anyone but herself. Her final, grim act is the first time she is liberated.
All About Medea doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said. The deconstruction of the portrayal of women in fiction, and examination of the toxic impacts of compulsory heteronormativity, is nothing new. That said, what this show says it says well, and its messages bear repeating.