at the Hayward Gallery, Friday 3rd August 2012
Last night I dressed up as a woman. I also went to a rave, got treated like a terrorist, signed up to a cult and had very little sleep. Oh, and I died. Shame really, because up until then it was sounding like my average Friday night.* Now I write this, exhausted, drained and sleepy, trying to piece together what actually happened. Before we go on, a word of warning; if you’re planning on seeing Hotel Medea, watch it before reading this review.
One thing’s for sure: this is by no means a revolutionary piece of immersive theatre. The techniques have, on the most part, been pioneered elsewhere and sometimes don’t quite click (though a massive congratulations to the tech team, who do some pretty incredible stuff on this production). Our concentration on completing our allotted tasks often gets in the way of the performance, making it easy to miss crucial bits of information. There are also times (more towards the beginning of the evening) when it’s difficult to know what is required of us, and though I respect the company for asking us to find our own route, it feels like precious moments are wasted working out what to do which could be spent listening and talking.
Also, and here I have to be careful for fear of being misconstrued, the ensemble can often be found lacking. This isn’t to disparage their incredible stamina throughout this six-hour-long, all-night piece, but merely to say that some performances are a little too self aware for us to take them seriously. The show is at its best during the tongue-in-cheek moments, and I feel a little less earnestness wouldn’t take anything away from the overall feel. The cast are at their weakest during the first act, but find a better rhythm and style later in the night, as we start being told directly what to do and work up a rapport with the characters.
Ok, now onto the interesting bit. There are, broadly, three general themes to Hotel Medea, all of which are lifted directly from Euripides’ original and given a postmodern twist; colonialism, public vs private and gender, each of which, broadly, is represented by the three acts thought the night.
We enter a thriving, colourful, loud market in Brazil, and are immediately thrust into the ‘Zero Hour Market’ (compared by the wonderfully dry Jorge Lopes Ramos). One thing is on everyone’s mind: the golden fleece. Suddenly, the peace is broken by the arrival if Jason (James Turpin) and his argonauts, who proceed to demand the coveted artifact. Soon, we are found ensconced in dozens of ritualistic dances and ceremonies, and even if we initially stand stoic and cynical, the rhythms soon pulse through our bodies and without realising our bodies move. There is an almost hypnotic quality to this first act, for just as we feel the rituals are dragging we enter a stage of semi-consciousness. But it is Jason’s treatment of the natives which speaks to us most here, as we feel a taste of what it feels like to be overthrown and pillaged. The rituals are a kind of lifeline to this, allowing us to remember our humanity. And though Jason was painted as a hero in the original myth, where land changed hands regularly, in our post-colonial world it is far more sinister. The act concludes with the loud thumps of westernised music and flashing lights, blinding us to the horrors which are happening right by our side.
The second stage of the evening happens in three parts, each of which feeds into and enriches the others, highlighting how we are only compete when our public and private personas come together. Other than being put to sleep and sung to, we also share some of our thoughts on love with Medea’s nurse (Thelma Sharma) before the heroine discovers her husband’s infidelity and we join Jason on his campaign trail for elections. The reason why this section works so well is because we are allowed simply to soak up what is happening whilst still feeling involved. The satirical take on politics is also done with a wink by Jason’s assistant (Will Dickie); this kind of attention to detail wouldn’t seem out of place in The Thick Of It.
In the final section (which starts at about 4 in the morning after plenty of coffee), the gender questions Euripides raises are brought to the fore, as men and women become segregated (as they have done at times throughout the night). After the questionable presentation of women in the first two halves, the tables are turned as we men are told to put on a wig and lipstick and infiltrate the ladies’ club for signs of witchcraft. Now we are Medea’s chorus, and shortly after we feel how it is to be terrorized for our sex; rather than just argue that men are to blame, this post-feminist interpretation of the myth suggests that a corrupt society is to blame and every single one of us is implicated in this subjugation.
The final moments see a reversion to play and childhood, as we run for our lives away from Medea (in these scenes, Persis-Jade Marvala is wonderful). Chosen as one of her two children, I was then treated to a semi-transcendent episode in which I was told through an earpiece, that I was dying, whilst my body became a shrine. Perhaps the lack of sleep is partly responsible, but these moments take on a particular piquancy after the noise and complexities of the previous six hours, suggesting we need to find ways to revert to childish innocence in order to create a more peaceful society.
I think it’s right to experience Hotel Medea with an ever-present smirk, for to take the piece too seriously would deny it its fictionality and not do justice to the sheer performance of the whole thing. And whilst many would argue that participating in the lives of Jason and Medea as something other than audience members makes our viewpoint more subjective and individual, the beauty of Hotel Medea is that we are forced to step into the shoes of everyone in the story, thus allowing us to have even more of an objective viewpoint that Euripides himself.
*That’s a joke, by the way. I would never go to a rave.