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Interview with Benedict Andrews
There are so many Medeas. Euripides was among the first authors to be inspired to write about this extraordinary woman, who is a major character in the tale of the Argonauts. He was followed by Ovid, Konrad von Würzburg, Richard Glover, Gotthald Oswald Marbach, Christa Wolf, Nino Haratischwili and so many others that they cannot all be listed here. Each Medea is different from the preceding one. Each author, each playwright, focuses on his or her chosen aspect of the story, a tale that offers so many junctures for exploring the work that, far from encouraging untruths, the result has been an amplification of the way we view Medea.
The latest, brand-new production of "Medea" has its premiere at the Komische Oper Berlin on 21st May. It is the culmination of the efforts of a number of creative spirits. Franz Grillparzer wrote his “Golden Fleece” trilogy in 1819, the final part of which was taken up by Aribert Reimann for his opera, which is being staged once again by Benedict Andrews, following his work directing the world premiere in Vienna in 2010. But do we really need another Medea? We can pre-empt the interviewee by answering a resounding ‘yes’, but before Australian director Benedict Andrews tells us why, he elaborates a little on who this new Medea is.


Medea is a mother, a woman who has lost everything and whose hold on reality is shaky. Not only has she lost her homeland; she’s also adrift in the world, with no sense of belonging. She’s in this predicament because she staked everything on a relationship with a man who was not from her native country. She betrayed her roots and threw over everything to be with him. At his side she committed crimes that bound them together as a couple, made them outlaws and brought them to the man’s homeland, where Medea could never survive and prosper. Aribert Reimann’s opera is the portrait of a woman at her wits end, teetering between reality and psychosis.

Whenever a new version of the "Medea" story appears - and Reimann’s opera is no different - connections are made to what is going on in the present day. In this case it’s the stream of refugees and how they’re being dealt with in this country. Is this kind of connection important for you, too?

The parallels between the opera and our own times are pretty close, definitely. Alone the word “banishment”: if you look at how often it’s used in the opera and how much people have been talking of the “muslim ban” over the last two months. The experience of losing one’s homeland and having to take flight, the feelings of powerlessness, vengeance, violence that the experience engenders… these are the forces portrayed in this opera. Strong and proud though she is, the woman is beset by these forces, smothered, broken and eventually driven to an act of extreme violence, killing her own children and setting fire to the palace.
The things we hear in the opera and the songs that Medea sings reflect the extreme situation in which she finds herself, and it’s absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Granted, we’re not drawing blatant one-to-one parallels onstage, but that’s not necessary. Audiences will pick up on the references without the characters having to walk around holding up placards.

Aribert Reimann said in an interview that, of all his works, this one has the least amount of action onstage - if you discount the huge mental transformations that the characters undergo. As a director, how do approach a work that has so little action?

To me, it’s not devoid of action at all. I come away from each new rehearsal more in awe of Aribert Reimann’s dramaturgy. It’s amazing how he’s fashioned something quite new out of Grillparzer’s material. It’s like a diamond. The way he composed the piece, every scene builds on previous scenes, creating a trap that tightens inexorably around Medea. The trap is obvious from the outset. Medea worries and works away at it, following her own path as the noose closes around her. We see a woman stranded on the stage, we see the machinations of power encircling her, revolving faster and faster and ever more mercilessly.

The way you put it, it seems the material is tailor-made for the cinema, where the camera can get right up close to the faces and show every twitch of a muscle.

No, the film medium is no use here at all, because any distance dissolves - in the truest sense of the phrase - into thin air, thanks to the music. I’ve made films and now I’ve come back to theatre because the space acts as a physical echo chamber where a lot of useful rituals are played out. And I believe that’s essential for Medea. A myth, a ritual, is being enacted onstage and we get the chance to get up on the stage, too, as it were, and penetrate this state of crisis. Reimann’s music plays its part by seeking and finding the nerve ends of the audience and teasing them and eventually fraying them. This is unlike any other opera I’ve worked on, in the sense that with "Medea" you have to say that there is nothing about her that is reminiscent of objective status; she’s in a constant state of psychological crisis. "Medea" sucks us in. She’s an almost constant presence on the stage, which represents more than the mere physical location: it’s the landscape of Medea’s emotional universe.

Interview: Renske Steen
(c) Jan Windszus Photography