The stage is completely empty. Completely, utterly empty. All the way to the iron curtain at the back. A huge, black and grey cavern lined with grids, ropes, and other mechanical elements. This is the emptiest, most openly empty stage I’ve seen in my four days here.

Then the worklights fade, and a large, very bright spot, about knee high, snaps on stage right and the vague outline of a huge, moving shadow appears in the circle of light it projects onto the iron curtain. It looks like a vast, ragged bird. We hear thumping footsteps. Slowly, slowly, the shadow becomes a little more defined; even more slowly, a human form emerges, almost bent double, flapping her arms in a strange, uncanny gesture — is it a signal of distress? Of mourning? Or is she simply mimicking a bird? (Why?) We are in the world of Michael Thalheimer, where moments, especially opening moments, are allowed to take as long as they take. The figure, as we eventually learn, is the nurse of Medea’s children. Medea herself is heard before she is seen; eventually, the iron curtain lifts to reveal a towering grey wall with a single step, about three metres off the ground, on which Medea perches, screaming. Constanze Becker plays her as a force of nature, unrelenting, unbending, beyond conventional psychological or sociological explanation: her Medea is something less and greater than human, a thing made up partly of a restricted arsenal of physical gestures, a number of vocal registers, but mainly of Euripides’ poetry. She is a figure of art, of myth, a throwback to a way of thinking, of speaking, of imagining that is not only not ours — it’s also not that of the characters around her. We are, after all, dealing with the grand daughter of the sun god.

There are more differences than similarities between this show and Thalheimer’s Horvath production (about which more here and here). I asked him about this contrast briefly during the Q&A, and hope to ask him some more tomorrow, so I’ll come back to this point in a later post. But one thing both shows have in common is a real focus on spacial depth: the relationship between upstage and downstage matters a whole lot. Medea is as far removed from us as she can be for most of the play, even as she is aurally entirely in control (acoustically, this is a truly awe-inspiring performance — Becker is utterly present vocally from at least twenty metres deep into a proscenium stage; her voice rings out with almost unnatural clarity, entirely without amplification). The other characters, none of whom ever interact with her or with each other physically (with a singular exception late in the play), and few of whom ever look at her or at one another, move, not exactly freely, in the huge expanse of empty space between the set and the front edge. But they also fill that space — or rather, their shadows do. As soon as these figures start to speak, they are lit by the same large spots from the wings that turned the nurse into a bird. Those shadows sometimes colonize the space; at other times, as they become more defined, they pull the characters apart into a double presence, embodied speakers holding colloquy with their own outline. And when the lights snap off, those embodied figures are suddenly reduced to shadowy outlines, now mere silhouettes. Only Medea, for the longest time, does not have much of a shadow, so close does she hover to her wall. And once she moves forward, she casts a double shadow — she is never quite like anyone else.


This is an astonishingly austere production, almost French Neoclassical in its use of actors’ bodies — except for Medea’s and, in the end, the Messenger’s and Jason’s. Both men are reduced to mute horror by what they have witnessed, mouths agape in silent anguish — surely a direct bridge to Helene Weigel’s famous, and iconic, Mother Courage. Thalheimer, for all his minimalism, for all his reductionist aesthetic, still puts a wide array of theatrical references into play.

The show also feels like a genuine departure for Thalheimer in its treatment of the text, at least as far as I can tell. The director has often spoken of his desire to get to the heart of a play, to reduce the piece to its essence, to make it work theatrically in a way that remains as true as possible to its key concerns by stripping away anything that seemed superfluous or distracting. In his Medea, however, that effort takes the form of making as much room for the language as possible, giving it space and time to unfold, to be heard, to affect us. There are moments when Thalheimer’s staging feels almost operatic (and I don’t mean that dismissively at all). It’s as if these figures bear such a tenuous relationship to us that what is fascinating about them, or moving, or terrifying, can only be realized on stage if every effort is made not to reduce (or, fine, a less loaded term: transform) them into portraits of psychological processes and motivations. These characters are made up of language and ideas first and foremost, and those need to be transported; to that end, they take a physical form less by choice than of necessity. And the world they inhabit, if a world it is, is not ours.

So much more to say — about athleticism, about music, about pictograms (!). But I have a day of Medea talk ahead of me and need rest. More anon. (Four days in, this is beginning to feel like serious work….)

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