“Omdat het kan. Omdat ik me herinner hoe het voelde toen ik het ontdekte, van jullie twee. En ik wil haar laten zien hoe dat voelde.”
There is something hugely exciting about the way that Simon Stone works. His contemporary recasting of The Wild Duck ruffled some feathers when it played at the Barbican in October and now it is Euripides’ turn to be excavated and explored as Stone makes his directorial debut at Toneelgroep Amsterdam with a scorching interpretation of Medea. With Ivo van Hove as Artistic Director and a long-standing repertory company of immense talent, Toneelgroep are surely one of the most exciting companies around – hence my regular trips to Amsterdam to see them – and collaborating with Stone here simply enhances their prestige with such a punishingly powerful production.
Where Stone so fearlessly succeeds is in the discarding of any notion of classical fidelity, opting instead to distil the story to its very essence and then reframing it for modern audiences. So here, through improvisation work with the company, the age-old tale of Medea is interwoven with the true life case of Debora Green, a US mother who attempted to poison her husband and succeeded in killing two of their three children. The result is a combination that simply cannot be ignored, the dismissive unreality of ‘Greek tragedy’ is pulled kicking and screaming into our world, the terrible deeds of this mother – renamed here Anna – made harrowingly believable in this striking new context.
This he achieves through a series of bold decisions. Gone is the Greek chorus and in its place Stone gives voices to Anna’s two children Gijs and Edgar and also to Clara, the Glauce figure with whom Anna’s husband is having an affair. Thus the world of the play is concentrated on the implosion of this nuclear family who now each have their role to play in the psychodramatics that drive Anna to her terrible acts. And Bob Cousins’ design provides the perfect space in which to play them out. A wide expanse of timeless white space again pulling away from classical allusions as it allows for scenes to bleed into each other, take place simultaneously, or be filmed and projected live by the children who are making a family documentary for a school project.
The blankness of the space also allows for the most devastating of images to be built up, as a strangely beautiful black snow starts to fall at the midpoint, its true significance only becoming appallingly apparent much later on. It’s an extraordinarily effective creative decision and supremely powerful – making the trip to Amsterdam worth it alone and that’s before I’ve even mentioned the cast. The always strong Marieke Heebink is sensational as the brittle Anna, a successful pharmaceutical scientist thoroughly knocked off her axis by her husband’s philandering and incapable of steadying herself even after a stay in a mental institution, her manic energy unable to be contained – “ALLES IS OK” she screams at one point, convincing no-one least of all herself.
And she’s backed by strong work from Aus Greidanus Jr. as the feckless Lucas who enables as much as he enrages, tumbling back into bed with Anna even as he’s announcing his younger lover is pregnant. Gaite Jansen as Clara, said lover, skilfully shows the trials of trying to become a good stepmother – especially in the face of an overcompensating returned mother – and the cold fury of her climactic meeting with Anna brings out extra depth in both performances, culminating in a hugely disturbing but again highly simply played design choice. The whole company are excellent though, capturing the focused intensity of Stone’s storytelling perfectly and making Greek tragedy as compellingly contemporary and relevant as never before – on this evidence, the freedom and integrity with which he reinterpreting the classical playbook means we should be watching his work for years to come.