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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


†Margaret R. Mezzabotta
University of Cape Town

A South African Medea

Between October 1994 and March 1996 a production of Medea was put on in three South African centres (Cape Town, Grahamstown and Johannesburg), to considerable critical acclaim. It was performed by a multiracial cast of professional actors and dancers who had created their own script in a collaborative effort, drawing on versions of the Medea myth found in Euripides, Apollonius and Seneca. After intensive study of various translations of these sources, they spent three weeks improvising their own version of the tragedy and its antecedents. The director, Mark Fleishman, composed the final script and Alfred Hinkel choreographed the dance movements from these workshopped improvisations. Verbal and physical language together created dramatic meaning.

The internalization of the play achieved by the workshopping process enabled the cast to isolate the essentials of the story and thereby to maximize their impact on a modern audience. Just as Euripides' original Medea had been created for an audience located in a specific historical and political context, so this production addressed a public whose perceptions - whether as victims or victimizers - had been coloured by the experience of four decades of apartheid government. The familiar topics of racial arrogance, gender inequality, revenge killings, and the helplessness of the disempowered in a violent and authoritarian society were explored in front of the spectators through the medium of ancient Greek myth.

The cast solved the problem of how to communicate the play's mythological background (Jason's quest for the golden fleece, his arrival in Colchis, Medea's passion for Jason, her use of magic to help him acquire the fleece, the return voyage and the murders of Apsyrtus and Pelias) to an audience unfamiliar with Greek mythology by re-enacting the antecedents through the media of dance, mime, song and the spoken word. The previous history of the relationship between Medea and Jason was incorporated into the play, with Aeetes, Apsyrtus, inhabitants of Colchis and a citizen of Iolcus appearing as characters in the new production.

Costume, music, movement and language were used to underscore both visually and aurally the differences in values and outlook between the 'civilized,' exploitative Greeks and the 'primitive,' trusting Colchians. The Greek characters wore lounge suits or trenchcoats in contrast with the colourful ethnic robes, tribal headdresses and amulets of the 'barbarians.' A variety of musical modes was employed, from disco-beat to polyphonic African harmonies accompanied by drums and marimbas. While English was the predominant language of the production, Tamil, Afrikaans and Xhosa were spoken at times by the Colchian characters. When the audience could not understand sections of the verbal text, they had to deduce its meaning from the physical language and dance movements of the actors. This alternative yet complementary signifying system was drawn from different physical performance modes found in the South African environment, modern Western contemporary jazz dance, African traditional dance forms including the toi-toi, and Indian dance modes such as Kathakali and Bharata Natyam.

The production drew attention to the affinities between the mythical situations dramatized in the playtext and recent South African experience. It transformed the Medea myth to highlight dilemmas that confront the South Africa of the 1990s, a society itself in the process of transformation, and one which is seeking ways to expedite the adjustment to cultural and political change. As a contemporary redaction of a traditional story it pointed to and identified past attitudes responsible for levels of suffering only now being revealed by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Video clips of selected scenes from the Fleishman/Reznek production will be screened to facilitate discussion.

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