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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Medea (Bard in the Botanics)

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

An Exercise in Intensity Starring Nicole Cooper

At first, we hear angry shrieks in the distance, whispers about a woman who doesn’t fit in, and furniture crashing so loudly it makes you jump. And then, she appears; face slumped, hair bedraggled, dressed in a shade of pink that was clearly purchased during happier times. Nicole Cooper plays the eponymous Medea, in a new version of the classic Greek Tragedy written by Kathy McKean and directed by Gordon Barr. The performance takes place inside the Kibble Palace, the historic greenhouse that sits in the Botanic Gardens. While dreary skies and downpour may be bad news to those watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream out in the open, here it adds drama. The rain lashes against the glass walls right on cue, framing Cooper’s monologues perfectly. It’s as though everything about the evening has been put in place to bring the best out of her performance.

Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

And in many ways, it has. The production has some wonderful supporting performances, such as Isabelle Joss as a homely nurse and Alan Steele as the powerful tyrant Creon, but McKean wrote this new version of the play with Cooper in mind, and that comes out in the performance. Many shows thrive by building themselves around the performance of their lead actor, especially if it is a work that plays to that actor’s strengths. And Cooper does have a distinctive performance style. During the emotional scenes that I got to see in her performances for Bard in the Botanics last year, she was memorable for her passion, explosiveness, and, well, volume. And in Medea that has been brought to the forefront: Cooper throws herself into the role and never lets a moment of emotional anguish slip through her fingers. Her expression is almost always thunderous, her face is almost always sticky with tears, and her lines are almost always shouted.

But despite the forcefulness of Cooper’s performance, it is hard to see her interpretation of the character actually emerge. Medea’s rage is pronounced, but it is too detached to be believable. Her love for her sons, represented by children’s coats, feels more like a theatrical tool than a lived reality for this character. Her relationship with her traitorous ex Jason, played by Johnny Panchaud, is fiery but oddly uncompelling since the reactions come across as too rehearsed to be convincing. Ultimately, she delivers a performance that feels performed. You find yourself waiting for the reality of Nicole Cooper the actor to melt away, and the presence of Medea the character to emerge, but this sadly never happens.

But worse still is the fact that every scene, every monologue, nearly every line is delivered at the same level of tension. There are no dips and ebbs, no builds towards crashing, dramatic climaxes. Medea jumps between spiralling self-pity and skittish self-preservation but she never has a minute of rest, and neither do we. Far from spreading this same sense of fear and overexcitement to the audience, it quickly becomes numbing. Each scene of this 90-minute performance melds into each other with few comparatively dramatic moments that can stand out. (Which is really saying something given how the story ends.)

But this take on Medea is clearly a deliberate choice. McKean’s writing and Barr’s direction both have their moments, such as when Creon threatens Medea to leave and says “those that come after me won’t use words”, or when Medea imitates Kibble Palace’s statue of Eve to make a point about womanhood and power. But most of their efforts have been funnelled into this vision of the ancient Greek story that seeks to impress itself onto the audience, but in doing so doesn’t give the play any space to breathe. Nevertheless, the show does create a rare kind of intimacy. The way that Cooper interacts with the audience, seeking their pity, their reassurance, and even their remorse at times, undoubtedly produces the effect that Barr, McKean and Cooper all intended. For some audiences, this will be exactly the kind of engaging, small-scale, site-specific performance they were hoping for. For others, the intensity of the experience will have you itching for an interval. Three stars.

Whispers From the Crowd: "Fantastic!" "Great!" "I didn't know the story but it explained it well. And it was good they didn't use real children."

Medea will run in the Kibble Palace, Glasgow Botanic Gardens until July 9. If you wish to attend the performance and you are unfamiliar with the story of Medea, it is advisable that you consult an internet summary and/or the programme before the performance.


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