Theatre

Blazing new directions in drama

Brent Meersman

Brett Bailey reveals the thinking behind his site-specific interpretations of the ancient Greek tragedy Medea for European audiences.

Faniswa Yisa in Brett Bailey’s medEia: How one woman breaks the mould and acts to break free of oppressive systems. (Pieter Hugo)

Director Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A was one of the highlights of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Although ­Bailey’s work is often staged in foreign capitals and at major international theatre festivals, his productions are unfortunately seldom seen in South Africa.

Last month, medEia, written by Dutch playwright Oscar van Woensel and directed by Bailey, premiered in Zurich and then transferred to Basel. It will go on to play Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and five other cities.

Cape Town audiences will be able to catch it during a brief four-night run. This is Bailey’s first production to be staged in his home town since Macbeth was presented at Spier in 2007. His last show at the Baxter was iMumbo Jumbo in 2003.

The character of Medea is a difficult one for performers and for audiences because of the extreme and horrific acts she commits. In fact, you used two actresses. How have you dealt with her this time? What was the process for the performer?
I used two actresses to play the role in the site-specific version at Spier, because the play constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time and the scale of the terrain required more than one actress. But this is not necessary in a play that takes place on one stage. Faniswa Yisa plays the entire role. We worked with the role according to a dream-like structure: although the narrative is fragmented, the actor flows from scene to scene as if in a dream, never making sharp transitions from one period of time to another. It all happens in a kind of ritual time frame.

How have you interpreted this ancient story for the contemporary audience?
In medEia, the chorus’s lines constantly reiterate their powerlessness and helplessness as women; their inability to act or to make a difference to the narrative in which they exist. They are peripheral women who have no possibility of influencing society.

This production of the play has been made primarily for European audiences — for cities in Switzerland, Germany and Holland. The work I have been doing over the past three years [Exhibit A and Exhibit B] zoomed in on the status and plight of African immigrants and asylum seekers in Europe — people with few rights, scant access to healthcare, information about their status, ­education for their children or employment opportunities and constantly faced with the threat of deportation. This is the context in which I locate medEia — the inspiration behind my medEia chorus is marginalised African asylum seekers in Europe.

But I don’t want to show African women as disempowered — as victims — to the bourgeois, mainly white audiences that attend the festivals we play to in Europe. I choose to present the chorus as strong, gorgeous, forceful women with a command of their physicality, their words, their performing of the story.

The play tells of how one woman [Medea] breaks the mould and acts to break free from the oppressive systems that strive to silence and crush her. Of course, this has a lot of relevance here too in South Africa, where immigrant African women with children are so often at the bottom of the pecking order.

Although you have often worked outside of the theatre, the first production of medEia seemed to indicate strongly a watershed in your theatre-making, to doing site-specific work. Now you have brought medEia back to the proscenium arch. What has returning to the traditional theatre format meant?
My decision to return to the proscenium is motivated by finances — few European festivals have the budgets to present large-scale site-specific works these days. The stage version requires a completely different approach: it is a lot less forgiving than an evocative environment, where crumbling walls and a starry sky add magic to performance.

The text of medEia is studded with the lyrics of several pop songs. I used this as inspiration to give the work a pop-music feeling, dropping the drama into a kind of music concert so that the overriding language or feeling of the piece has more to do with a concert than drama with a capital D.

In Europe I am using the city itself in which we perform as the site of the drama, so in each of the countries I play in I use the national anthem and video projections of local cityscapes to locate the tragedy there. So in a sense, for European audiences the performance is site-specific, with a group of African asylum seekers performing a blazing pop-tragedy situated in that particular city.

medEia will be at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, from September 12 to 15


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