Observer/Burgess Prize: Shahidha Bari on Winning the Prize
The actual Observer Anthony Burgess Arts Journalism prize is an elegant thing of modernist beauty – a clear Perspex block, small and neat, stamped with the picture of a stylish black typewriter. It is, charmingly, modelled after an arts journalism prize once won by Burgess himself (this detail tells something of the care with which the foundation tends to Burgess’s memory). It is also redolent of something Hunter S. Thompson, Burgess’s editor at Rolling Stone, once wrote to him, furiously lambasting his erstwhile contributor: “Get your worthless ass out of the piazza and back to the typewriter”. That’s probably the most eloquent kind of ear-bashing you could ever receive. For my own part, since writing for the competition in 2014, I’ve rarely had time to stray from the “typewriter”, regularly contributing to a range of newspapers and periodicals, including the TLS, the Guardian and the Financial Times, whilst also reviewing arts for BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3. The Burgess Prize encouraged me to have confidence in my judgment and challenged me to find ways to articulate it precisely and persuasively. It also helped me work out how best to balance the different elements of a review, gauging the ways that you might bring to bear upon it your knowledge and sensitivity, and inviting a reader to enter into your sensibility without closing off their own possibilities for response. I’m immensely grateful to have been associated with the foundation and with Burgess’s legacy, which encourages us all to keep rattling away at the typewriter in the hopes of writing something worthwhile.
Shahidha Bari’s Prize-winningessay ‘On the National Theatre’s “Medea”’
One long hiss is how Medea replies to Jason when he explains why he has chosen to abandon her for the affections of another woman: “Esosa se esosa hos isasi hosoi”. I saved your life, she retorts, rebuking him with a simmering fury. In the original Greek, there is no way to deliver that line other than to spit it out, spilling with venom and bile. It makes for “one long hiss” as the translator, Moses Hadas, astutely described it. Ben Power’s clunky new translation for the National Theatre rattles through the drama without much care for details like this. Luckily for him, Helen McCrory’s panda-eyed Medea is at hand to wring out the agony.
In this latest production, McCrory’s Medea is less serpent and more wolf, prowling the stage with a mounting power. This animality is, in part, a kind of ostentatious expression of her non-femininity – she is all muscular arms, rippling biceps, an expert in terror as she stalks around in combat trousers and vest. The veins in her neck visibly pulse, even as her thickly kohl-rimmed eyes fill with unblinked tears. But in acting the part of an animal, she is also most fundamentally human. Human beings are animals. We, as the Greeks seemed to know so well, are far from the gods we worship and closer to the beasts we so readily slaughter. When that other murderous Euripedean mother, Agave, tears her son to pieces in “The Bacchae”, she heartbreakingly claims to have mistaken him for a “lion cub”. The horror of Medea’s crime is not just what she does, or even that she does it, but that we might all do it, given the circumstances. The horror that this play stirs within comes from an uncomfortable recognition of the beasts that we are and the world that turns us upon each other.
But we are only animals, not monsters. And McCrory, intelligently enough, doesn’t play Medea monstrously, seeming to know that for all her airy claims to come from supernatural stock, Medea is not magical but mortal. And more to the point, she is mortifyingly subject to betrayal, jealousy, and loneliness. Somehow that doesn’t seem to prevent the drama being played here, as it is, for shock value, an extended slow burn heading toward a spectacle we’re always anticipating and from which we cannot avert our eyes. Indeed, Carrie Cracknell’s direction makes a point of the inevitability of the play’s filicide, placing, as it does, an ethical obligation on an audience who fill a theatre and have nowhere to run as the horror unfolds. Medea crosses the line and we must witness it. This, declares McCrory, rather defensively, is a woman brutalized by life’s brutality, and so to watch Medea is to acknowledge not only her crime but the brutalization that brings her crime about too. This sentiment, that tragedy teaches us how experiences of injustice inspire acts of horror, seems true enough, except that the grandeur of this claim doesn’t always sit easily with the simplicity of Euripides’s drama. At the heart of this play is a young woman, abandoned and afraid, who ends up doing something unthinkably terrible.
In his notes to the production, Power describes the drama as “the ultimate divorce play”. And if there is a whiff of a facetious kind of dumbing down here, he is nonetheless correct to suggest that it is a story less about golden fleeces and more about families. Certainly the freighted scenes between McCrory and Danny Sapani’s blusteringly macho Jason, detail the bitter fallout of a passionate relationship. But it is in the moments when the drama is stripped back even further that this production hits its stride. “He left and I am already nothing”, McCrory’s tough-as-nails Medea whimpers at one point, baggy-eyed and cracked-voiced. The viciousness of heartbreak cuts to the quick and McCrory relishes in this agony, nursing her misery into a fury. Sapani’s Jason begins by bellowing his justifications in a baritone and marching off, but the final meting out of Medea’s justice leaves him screaming. This is her play. And it is a woman’s world, despite what everybody else might think.
Even Creon, King of Corinth, who condemns her to exile in a pre-emptive strike, admits, “I am scared of you”. McCrory’s Medea is scary, but not because she is mad or magic, but precisely because she is traumatised and desperate, an emotionally abused woman with two children and nowhere to turn. Any course of action is possible for her now. Euripides is at pains to remind us that Medea is not only a mother who murders her sons: before that, she is a daughter who betrays her father, and a sister who murders her brothers, all for the love of man who carries her away far from home and then deserts her. In the play, she is the betrayer betrayed, left a stranger in a strange land. When Jason accuses her of a “barbarous rage”, he means barbaros, meaning foreign, deriding her non-native status. When she seeks Creon’s kindness, Medea is an asylum seeker and a single mother with no recourse to state support. Euripides is agile in posing the question of how we square that experience of abandonment with the act of brutality that follows. It’s a complexity that always manages to emerge in this production over and above the melodrama.
Less persuasive are some of the more overwrought themes. Under Cracknell’s direction and Power’s script, McCrory’s Medea repeatedly cries and keels over at the recollected pains of labour. Certainly, Euripides makes much of the “fierce pangs” of parturition (“I had rather fought three battles than bear one child!”), and in there somewhere there is a quietly radical point about the inequality of child-birthing and child-rearing, but it’s subtlety is rather squashed under the force of McCrory’s guttural performance. The chorus, here replaced with a troupe of sub Pina Bausch-ish dancers, are similarly deployed to mixed effect. At times, they are a puzzling distraction, only abstractly flailing limbs and awkward poses. At other moments, their juddering, gracelessly contorted forms evoke something utterly otherworldly – exactly as women’s bodies in labour are.
If the burden of bearing of children is a theme, then so is its unspeakable flipside: the idea of a freedom that comes of childlessness. Perhaps motherhood is always close to a kind of monstrosity. Medea’s story plays this idea out to its horrendous endgame. Tom Scutt’s dilapidated set, all peeling wallpaper and strip lighting, conjures a home without a warming hearth, beyond which lie only arid woods and the scorched earth of a barren land. The red walls seem to increasingly close in, becoming a cavernous and yet claustrophobic womb, emptied of the lives it once engendered. Home is where the heart is; in this play, Medea has a heart, she just doesn’t have a home. Alison Goldfrapp’s alien, impressionistic and wintry score helps here, with its variously cold, shimmering strings, an ineluctably marching drum, the sounds of a tape reeling backwards and unearthly howls.
As the critical moment nears, a commingled despair and exultation fills McCrory’s mercurial Medea: “My heart do not do this thing!”, she screams with a fiery passion, a sentiment which turns, almost as soon as it is expressed, and freezes into an icy resolve: “Only destruction now”. The merit of this Medea is that she never permits us to lose sight of her loneliness, even when it has turned lethal. If the play achieves in this production a kind of mythic grandeur at the end, it is not one that allows us to walk away elevated, excusing ourselves from the scene of a single mother and a state that has washed its hands of her. The question it poses is not only “How does a mother slaughter her own sons?”, but more pressingly, “How do mother’s cope with the burden of motherhood at all”? In the closing scene, McCrory’s Medea carries off the corpses of her sons into the sunset with a seemingly superhuman strength and every hope that her Greek gods might exercise mercy and still her shuddering grief. But the audience knows that there is no stemming such sadness.