Theater In Conversation
Motherhood in the Raw: Medea
Simon Stone with Ivan Talijancic
January 12 – March 8, 2020
New York City
For some years now, European audiences have appreciated Australian director Simon Stone’s knack for giving well-known classics strikingly contemporary make-overs. When he finally made his American debut in 2018 with his riff on Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma (1934) at Park Avenue Armory, New York audiences responded with equal enthusiasm. In February, Stone returns to New York with his highly anticipated production of Medea. Originally staged in 2014 with Dutch actors at Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, the New York version, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, features Rose Byrne and Bobby Canavale. After an early January rehearsal, the intrepid writer/director answered my questions about his current production and his recent works.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): New York audiences had the opportunity to be introduced to your work last year with Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory. This show was praised on many levels, but there was a great deal of commentary about the visual aspects of your production. Personally, this makes me happy—as someone who makes work that is visually driven, I find myself often reminding people that the root of the word theater in Ancient Greek is “to see.” So, I would like to start our conversation by asking you, generally speaking, what your relationship is to design. How do you approach collaboration with your designers to create the world of your plays?
Stone: It's a good question. I start with the design. Usually, the first thing I know, after I've chosen a topic—or subject matter, or a source material—the next thing I'll do is, essentially, sketch it out in my head, a world that I want. Then I'll start talking to the set designer that I'm working with. With Yerma, for example, I said, “I want it to be a glass box with the audience on two sides. I want the location to change four times. I want it to be a carpet, then I want it to be grass and then I want the grass to die. And then I want it to be a dirt floor with rain.” Quite specifically what you saw on stage. The big challenge, of course, is the pragmatic solution of how to pull that off, and for that, I'm seriously thankful to the designers that I work with, who manage to find these kinds of solutions to impossible tasks. I mean, for me, what I'm focusing on when I'm making a piece is trying to find the joy of what theater can do that no other art form could do, and that magical moment where something seemingly impossible has happened in front of your eyes. It's what magic is: it's the fact that, you know, when you watch a movie, and someone does a card trick, you just don't buy it because you assume that there was some kind of manipulation that happened in the digital sphere. Whereas on a live stage, you watch a moment of magic—and theater can often have that, especially design—and there’s this feeling that "I can't believe my eyes and I don't know how they pulled that off, I don't know how that happened." As much as the aesthetics are important to me, I think, more than any other thing, the idea that an audience is constantly experiencing the joy of being at a live event, that's the source of inspiration in terms of why I do what I do when I create the design.
Rail: You’ve made a name for yourself working on plays that have been a part of the theatrical canon for a long time, yet you have a way of tapping into something that is strikingly contemporary. I am curious to hear what draws you to the classics. How do you work your way through a historic text to get to the modernity of it?
Stone: Again, it's that same interest in theater as an art form. If you go into theater, you're slightly obsessed with the past, you're obsessed with this ancient ritual that we've been engaging in for millennia, and there is this kind of aggression in our society, which is an attempt to kind of bury ourselves in the history of our humanity and all cultural rituals that make us feel that we can disappear into tradition. I think that is why theater will always survive, because it gives you this kind of comforting place to imagine that it's not 2020 and it's not already full of all of the influences that the world is full of. I've always been really attracted to that, but my paradoxical relationship to it is that I don't want us to forget the world we're living in, especially not in this really sacred art form that has real social relevance as well. So for me, I'm always playing with the paradox of the fact that we come to the theater because it is, in some ways, an old ritualistic tradition, but in other ways it is the most shocking place where we can have a contemporary reflection on who we are and how we are at this day and age. It's that particular paradox that I'm chasing when I make work for the theater, and that lends itself to taking these older stories. For somebody to think, "I'm going to a classic," and then all of a sudden to have that upended, and actually they've been suckered into watching a show about themselves in a situation where they are going to feel more open about the social reflection on that than they usually would. In a film, you can turn it off if you don't like it, but in a show, of course you can walk out if you want, but everyone is going to notice and reflect on what it might mean about you that you felt uncomfortable about that. So it's the most social of art forms in that people will notice if you don't like something, and people will see you reflect on it. But people will have their own opinions about whether or not they think that's the right way to respond. It is always political because it always reflects the way that a group of people see a particular issue or topic.
Rail: Let’s dive into Medea. We are going back now to the very origins of theater as we know it—Ancient Greece. What compelled you to retell this story at this day and age? How did you find a way in that feels relevant to you and the present-day audience?
Stone: The reason I choose particular plays is always a bit curious. You go looking around at subject matter and see if you can find a way to make it match the contemporary moment. Ivo van Hove asked me to do it for him five years ago, and I said yes. And then, you know, I went looking for the contemporary instances of people behaving like Medea. I ended up finding a series of women who had all done that fairly exceptional thing that Medea does. Most women don't behave like this; it's an incredibly rare thing for a mother to kill her own children, but that makes the case studies all the more interesting. How can we look at the series of circumstances that drove someone to that? As opposed to just writing them off as a psychopath—because that's a very easy thing to just casually do. My sister is a psychiatrist, and we would have arguments about this until I started to see her point of view, which is: there is no such thing as a psychopath. Even our classical psychopath, there was something that happened to that person at some point, somehow, that drove them to it. We don't like to think about it, as a society, in that way because we like to shirk that responsibility. We like to say, “It has nothing to do with the way our world works; there are good people and there are bad people.” Actually, what's really interesting from that point of view are the things that we overlook as a society—the ways that we treat women, especially around motherhood, and the expectations around that. Even more so, when a woman succumbs to postpartum depression, and the way she becomes marginalized—are there ways that we could be preventing a future Medea from coming into existence? That's what I ended up writing a play about: the pressure of motherhood on a successful, highly intelligent woman, the marginalization of someone losing her career, someone who used to define herself entirely by that—and the way that the sensitivity of brilliant minds can often be exactly what leads to moments of psychosis, the kinds of which end up in events like those that happened in the original play. Even if you look at the original source material, you are dealing with a brilliant woman, an overachiever, who did everything for her husband, while he was kind of like just trundling along behind. It's interesting, when you start doing research into cases of this, to realize how Euripides in an era 2000 years before psychoanalysis could tap into that.
Rail: You have originally staged Medea at the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. In New York, the leading roles are played by two extraordinary actors—Rose Byrne and Bobby Canavale—who are partners in real life as well as on the stage. What has it been like to collaborate with them on this version of the show?
Stone: I always love working with actors who can throw themselves very spontaneously into a moment and never need to feel why they need to repeat it. They are my ideal kind of actors—they reinvent themselves constantly and it's always about the truth of the moment. They are technically brilliant as well. That's the other thing, there's a lot of very wild, spontaneous actors who can't also think technically, but I need that from them, and [Byrne and Cannavale] can do both which is kind of extraordinary. I mean when you make the kind of work that I do, which is simultaneously aesthetically minded, but also very much centered on the performer, you need actors who can switch between the image and the moment, who can go "Yeah, I'm supposed to stand there," but then also just go completely wild when you want them to lose it. And they do that.