THEATRE REVIEW: Rehearsed reading - Medusa

By Antony Clay | 25/05/2017

THEATRE REVIEW: Rehearsed reading - Medusa
Elizabeth Harborne and Brendan Weakliam. Picture by Anna Taylor.


at Cast, Doncaster

(May 24)

FIRST of all, I have to say that this will be an unusual review because it is looking at a preview of a play that is still not in its final form. A review of a preview, if you like.

The audience got the chance to sit in on a rehearsed reading of Helen Mort’s new adaptation of Medusa which will return to Cast in its final form in October.

As part of Cast’s Works in Progress performances, the event was to test out ideas and collect audience feedback.

And I have to say it proved a fascinating process to see how the creatives in the production were happy to find out what the people who would be seeing — and let’s face it, paying for — the production have to say.

It’s unusual for a play’s production team and cast to be so open, and rather brave.

In the same way that Milton’s Paradise Lost gives an image reboot to Lucifer, Helen Mort’s new show aims to shed light on the softer side of the Medusa ‘monster’ with snakes for her hair.

In Greek mythology of course she had a habit of turning people into stone if they looked at her until Perseus came along and chopped her head off. Solutions always tend to be rather gory in myths.

The reading showed an innovative play which is already well formed and powerful. The cast and writer Helen Mort were happy to hear from members of the audience about ideas of how it could be improved and where perhaps there were weaknesses.

Obviously as a rehearsed reading there were no costumes or lighting effects or any other technical jiggerypokery which would add to a final production and help steer the story, but this modern take on the tale had a powerful message on the abuse of women and the response to victims of rape.

Rather than being the monster of old, Medusa is here a victim of sexual assault, a young woman ‘seduced’ by a powerful man, here the god of the sea Poseidon, who thinks he has the right to have her simply because of who he is.

Medusa and Poseidon are the best-formed characters of the play, in my opinion, at this stage. Medusa is vulnerable, broken rather than supported by those who should help her after her attack, a young woman made to think she is responsible.

The turning to stone of the old myth is here the erosion of feelings of compassion towards women in men caused by their overpowering negative lust for pornography and misogynist thinking, though perhaps the transformation of Medusa from victim to a woman seeking revenge for what happened to her isn’t as clear as it could be yet. Does she really become a monster railing against men or is that just their perception because they can’t come to terms with their own weakness? 

Elizabeth Harborne brought a depth to Medusa that was surprising and enthralling, particularly in a court scene where she is denigrated by the legal professionals, blamed for what happened to her. 

It was almost heart-breaking to see her squirm and mentally collapse as she is lambasted by the lawyers. In many ways I felt this was the most powerful scene in the whole play.

Medusa saying nothing said so much here.

I’m sure many women who have been unfortunate enough to have found themselves in that position in court will understand the character’s trauma.

There were suggestions from the audience that Poseidon, played by Rick Ferguson, should have been more malevolent throughout. He has two big speeches, both of which portray him as a rather chummy laddish character, the sort of matey bloke you’d meet at the pub or a party. But behind that chumminess is a dark arrogance of a man (well, a god) so powerful he doesn’t have to worry about the ramifications of his sexual predation, not that he sees it as that anyway. He sees it as a right, and has almost a contempt for his victims simply because they had the audacity to tempt him with their clothes and good looks. 

Rick’s portrayal is spot on as it is written now, in my view, simply because he is the opposite almost of what a villain usually is. Make him into a sort of Bond villain, bad from the off with no depth of character, and you would lose the powerful point that he is a person with attitudes you can see every day. He is almost an everyman character, and reality can be more frightening than fiction.

“I always tell the truth,” he says, oblivious that the truth is truly repellent. Helen Mort has written a great ‘baddie’ here.

It was interesting that some women in the audience drew comparisons between Poseidon and tainted celebrities like Jimmy Savile who felt they were free to assault simply becuase of who they were. Powerful men whose power fuels their ego and, tragically, their impulses.

Gemma Marsh as Sylvia, seen here as a wife lost to her husband’s love of porn and fascination with Medusa, demands sympathy and pity, and her other role as Athena is even more striking. Athena the goddess who blames Medusa for being raped in her temple, more concerned with etiquette than empathy.

The other two male characters, Alexander (Brendan Weakliam) and Perseus (Tim Cunningham) were written a little more weakly, I felt. So far they seem to be just there to move the story along and weave around the other characters. That isn’t a criticism, they are important roles and well played but their relevance needs explaining and filling out.

Perseus, who kills Medusa, is portrayed as a gullible young religious fanatic (a theme perhaps unexpectedly relevant this week) driven to cleanse the world of Medusa. He can’t see she is a victim. More depth to him would explain why he is so blinkered.

The same is true of Alexander. Why is he so fascinated by porn and Medusa, what is it in him that drives him from his real wife? 

Perhaps Alexander and Perseus are as much victims as Medusa — it’s an interesting question.

The episodic nature of the show works well. Themes can be raised and explored in segments and gradually brought together, building up the story to a hard-hitting whole.

I sincerely look forward to seeing the final production when it comes to Cast later this year. The audience members were enthusiastic and made suggestions because they wanted the play to work better, certainly not because they thought it was rubbish.

Medusa is a very good production and has powerful themes relevant to our times. It is good that the team wants feedback and I think that will prove fruitful.

Helen Mort is an innovative and adventurous writer whose work I look forward to investigating further.