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Re-framing the Scorned Woman. Medea Old Vic Interview.

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 5:20 AM Comments comments (4)

The Bristol Old Vic's production of Medea, performed by an all female cast, interwines the life of a contamporary divorcee with the text of Robin Robertson's adaptation of the Euripidean classic.

Chino Odimba's text focuses on the injustice experienced by wives who sacrifice their careers to raise children, while their husbands are able to move on in a divorce, with their careers and future still secure.

Odimba is careful to present Maddy (our modern Medea) as a hard-working, dedicated individual, whose misfortune occurs solely through her selfless capacity to nuture. A woman who gave up her career and moved across the country to support her husband and family, now left to fight for the wellbeing and future of her children, as Jason sells their house.

Medea Review.

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"Men tell us that we are lucky to live safe at home while they take up their spears and go to war. Well, that's a lie. I'd sooner stand behind a shield three times in battle than give birth once."


George Mann's all female production of Medea at the Bristol Old Vic intertwines Euripides' text with the story of a modern woman whose life draws distinct parallels to the play's heroine.

The modern text, written by Chino Odimba, tells the story of Maddy. She has been left by her husband (Jack) for a younger woman and must now raise their children alone. This story beautifully articulates the truth behind Medea's dismay and encourages us to understand that she is not simply a scorned, hysterical, woman who kills her children to revenge a man that no longer loves her. Rather, she is a woman who gave up her entire life "showing more love than sense", to serve the needs of her husband and sons, while he is able to pursuit his own greatness. Only, to be cast aside and banished to exile once she is no longer of use to him. More than ever, this production highlights the freedom that Medea has sacrificed for Jason and unveils the injustice of her new-found destitution. Maddy's story highlights just how pertinent and relevant a truth this can be within our modern world. Inspired by Medea, she learns to fight for her freedom.

Akiya Henry (Medea, Maddy), brings a powerful, grounded depth to Medea. Although she is deeply tortured, expressing a pain that permeates and can't be shaken, the sincerity and clarity of her anguish leads this character far away from malice and hysteria. We are presented with a very real, very betrayed woman, fighting to be afforded equality for the years she has sacrificed. Stephanie Levi-John embodies both Jason and Jack with reason, pragmatism and a startling amount of understanding. What we see is not a man who relishes in being unreasonable or selfish, but someone who is trying his best to make things right. His lines incur strong reactions from the audience at moments when he fails to see the reality so deeply, that he veers towards misogyny. But yet, in spite of this, we can't manage to hate him. It is clear that he not a villain. Jessica Temple, Kezrena James, Eleanor Jackson and Michelle Fox are equally exemplary in their roles, using powerful physicality and pitch-perfect vocals. This is an ensemble of the highest calibre.

George Mann was driven to create this production after reading Robin Robertson's translation of Medea. Through his text, he found a woman that was deeply misunderstood and whose "tragedy [is] all too real". He recalls the way in which his mother had to "fight twice as hard" as his father, after their divorce and sought to present a version of Medea that could encompass the very real plight that both she and modern women must still endure. Chino Odimba's text weaves its own beautiful poetry into that of Robin Robertson's and drives a strong and empathetic narrative that both challenges and confronts our own societal era. The soundscape designed and Co-Conducted by Jon Nicholls, sets a deep and poignant layer to this vivid tale.

Shizuka Hariu's Set Design begins minimalist and understated, yet quickly becomes breathtaking as Medea ascends the stairs to the heavens. This is accentuated by Katherine William's lighting, that subtly shifts us from one world to the next.

This truly is theatre at its very best. A spectacular company has formed to present the highest quality in all aspects of production and I couldn't recommend it highly enough.


Interview with Akiya Henry (Medea/Maddy)

and Stephanie Levi-John (Jason/Jack).

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By Naia Headland-Vanni.


NHV: It can be very easy to read Medea as a hysterical, jilted woman who resorts to murder because a man doesn't love her anymore. Although Robin Robertson's adaptation does very well to highlight the reality of her situation, she must still constantly battle the misconceptions of others. For example, Jason states, "if it weren't for this sexual jealousy, you'd agree. Women are all the same. If you're happy in bed then you're happy elsewhere". This reduces all of Medea's rage and the injustice that she is encountering to nothing more than an assumption that she is simply upset because her husband no longer loves her. So how did you work, as a company, to really highlight the truth behind this situation and to encourage the viewer to understand that this is about so much more than pride and sex?

AKIYA HENRY: First and foremost, what really helped is Chino's contemporary adaptation. It informs and heightens Medea's experience, because actually what you get to do is relate it to the present and you can be sat there as a viewer going, 'this could be my sister, this could be my mother, this could be me'. So it makes Medea's struggle, in relation to being in Athens, more present and contemporary and more accessible, which allowed us to really unlock her.

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: Medea in history has always been seen as this crazy, hysterical woman, so this has been about drawing it back, constantly asking 'why' and drawing it back to the human aspect of her.

AKIYA HENRY: And not forgetting, that this is actually a love story. For me, when I was going through the journey of Medea and Maddy, one of the things that kept coming up within the translation by Robin Robertson was the word "heart". And actually, this woman has had her heart broken. She has been shamed and betrayed - in public. She is encountering this conflict, she wants to hate Jason, but she can't, because she loves him. So when you're following that journey, of a woman whose heart is broken, I think it makes it a little more understandable, rather than a woman who has just gone crazy because a man left her.

NHV: The similarities between Medea and Maddy's situation are obviously very clear. Ultimately, they both face the same choice, because freedom was never an equal option through their marriages and are therefore left with an unjust battle to fight. But what do you think are the differences between Medea and Maddy that encourage such different outcomes?

AKIYA HENRY: I think one of the things that Chino talks about and that we were exploring was that actually, at some point, we have to see Maddy's liberation and freedom. Whereas you don't necessarily get to see that with Medea. What you experience is her killing her children. We don't know what happens next, ...unless you go onto Wikipedia and ask "what happens after Medea kills her children". Whereas, within the contemporary re-imagining, we wanted to explore what happens to a woman when she realises that she does have the power to take control of her freedom and that in being able to move somewhere with her children, we're sending a bigger message to women that they can take control of their lives. It will be hard and they will have to be brave, but they can do it and don't need to be afraid. What Medea does is inform Maddy on how to become liberated, so what does a woman need to do to experience liberation? That's why we decided it's better for her not to kill her children, but to take her life into the unknown. For us it was really important to send the message with Maddy, that this is how you can acquire your liberation and freedom, if you really want it.

NHV: Stephanie, being an actor, it is of course part of the job that you will play a character who you disagree with. But, would you say that within these circumstances, it was a bigger challenge? As you are working in an all female cast, making a very strong argument as part of an ensemble about these issues that women are facing. Yet, with Jason/Jack you are speaking against the entire ethic of the play.

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: To be honest, I think I am still going through this process, I think every night when we do it, I find something new and different things that Akiya says as Medea and Maddy stick out to me, which informs how I might respond to it. I play it different every night. I don't try to recreate him. Because at the end of the day, like Akiya just said, It is a love story. So again, if you drive it back to the human aspect of it, its difficult on both sides. The way I've seen it is that he has fallen out of love, perhaps, and has found someone else that he has connected with. We've discussed this, and we don't think they want to hurt each other, it just so happens that it's a battle of truth.

AKIYA HENRY: It's that thing of truth. What is your perception of truth? And one of the things that Steph does brilliantly, is that she plays Jack/Jason's truth. Which is, "well, yeah I've got to get on with my life and this is going to be better for me, for you and for the kids... See ya!"

NHV: So even though he really hurts Medea/Maddy, he isn't setting out with malice.

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: Yes, cause I don't think he sees himself as the antagonist in the situation, he wants to remain civil for the children. So I don't want to play him as an evil person, because I think that's what would have made him very one-dimensional. From feedback I'm learning that people find him quite lovable. People love to hate him, but by the end still understand where he is coming from. I don't try to play a man, I just try to play the truth. The human within their relationship.

NHV: and it could be genderless

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: it could be genderless. Exactly. And I'm glad that that's coming across! But it's weird cause you really have to believe it. Like when he says "if we could produce children some other way without need of women, all human misery would end", that's something that I just fundamentally don't believe! When it comes out of his mouth, you're like.... 'Okaaay Jason' (laughs).

NHV: Akiya, in an interview on women's hour, you said that after the show finishes, you need to take a good 45 minutes to unload yourself of all the weight and emotions that the character is going through because you acknowledge that women are still going through this today. How do you feel about the fact that Medea's battle is still such a relevant issue?

AKIYA HENRY: It's funny. I feel like, with a lot of the classical plays like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Euripides and Chekhov they really capture the female voice very strongly and every time I go into a classical play I get really angry and sad at the same time. Because I'm going, 'oh my gosh. I literally experienced that yesterday!' But at the same time, it kind of makes me smile because I realise that actually these plays still need to live. They still need to live, because if they don't, things cannot change. I've always loved Medea as a character. One of my first questions to the director (George Mann) was that it is really important to me that we don't turn her into a (makes deep wailing sound) kind of woman. Because actually, the struggle that she's going through, is also my struggle. Not only as a woman, but as a black person as well. You know, she talks about how it's really hard for her because she is perceived as a foreigner and that all these men either sexualise her or treat her like a servant. She also talks about how women are reduced to just our emotions and that our emotions don't matter and that as a women, her voice doesn't matter. She is constantly dealing with being silenced. It is so exciting for me, and also upsetting at the same time, because I am going, 'wow. Medea is actually informing me in how I have to move forward to make a difference'. And when I look into the women in the audience each night, I do burst into tears because I know that we are all in the same position. I don't even know them all or know their own stories. So this play has to resonate, and it's not just Maddy saying 'I have to do something for me and my children', its me saying I have to do something for myself, but also for you guys too. And I hope that Medea is doing something for you.

NHV: It was really shocking just how pertinent and relevant this story became when I watched it.

AKIYA HENRY: and to think that that's a man writing this story! A lot of classical plays do have such strong female voices, challenging society and they're written by men.

NHV: which is also quite sad, because you realise that only men are the one's who were listened to, so they are the one's who had to do all the talking.

AKIYA HENRY: And also what is really interesting is that they are using the voice of a woman to challenge society itself and the bureaucracy and the injustices of what society places on each other, but they are using women to do this.

NHV: Stephanie, between Jason and Jack, is there a character that makes more sense to you in terms of their perspective? Do you think the change within society helps to make one character's views more acceptable that another's?

STEPANIE LEVI-JOHN: That's a good question. I would say the development of society has made Jason's character more understandable. Purely because, I think there's more of an understanding of women's issues and women's rights now. But even though I think they're very streamlined in their characterisation, I found Jason a bit more difficult to understand, in terms of his sexism.

NHV: So even though you knew that he was from a time when this was more 'acceptable', it didn't make it any easier?

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: It didn't make it any easier, no. so I think what I had to do, was translate Jason into Jack, into the modern sense. And question, if he was here now, what would he be like as a person? This still made it very hard. His views are very archaic to me. This is one of the oldest plays ever written, and to think that some of those things still translate now, it is difficult, coming from a female perspective to understand and grasp the meaning behind what he says. And these are his true beliefs, so I try not to judge that. But it's difficult. It's very difficult. Really trying to see that everything they do, they do because it's 'right'. And they wholeheartedly have those views on a woman's position. He puts himself on a pedestal like, 'I am doing this for you". And he wholly believes this is right.


Medea is currently running until the 27th of May at the Bristol old Vic


A Translation by Robin Robertson

Modern Text written by Chino Odimba

Directed by George Mann

Devised by George Mann and the Company.

Photography by Jack Offord.

Othello - Tobacco Factory Theatre - Review

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 5:20 AM Comments comments (0)

The latest Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Othello feels discomfortingly relevant.

Othello, the Moor of Venice, a convert to Christianity, attempts to restore order and peace to those around him, yet is manipulated by the fateful hand of Iago. Othello is not a man who would conceive of murder. Yet, Iago's corruption of his ethics is intricately woven into him through realistic and well conceived untruths, until he is unable to establish an alternative reality.


Richard Twyman's direction of this text highlights the irrevocable harm which can be caused by fictitious facts and information. In a time where media and politicians are dictating sensationalised facts to their nations about differing cultures and nationalities, bending truths to best suit their agenda, this production highlights the ease with which cultural differences can be charged by those in power and twisted strategically by those in the guise of reliable figures.


Mark Lockyer’s Iago feels all too remnant of the ‘man in the pub’ type politician, whose approachability and normality can be used to gain trust among those who feel they can relate to him. He tackles this character brilliantly, drawing the audience in and allowing them to be party to his observations and witticisms. We can’t help but like the man we are listening to. Until his deceit goes too far. For Iago is a villain, and theatre goers are aware of this. But by drawing us in to him with such ease, we are able to comprehend just how easily the characters’ around him can be duped by his malice.


Othello is played with a deep, grounded, depth by Abraham Popoola and his enamoured flirtations with Desdemona (played beautifully by Norah Lopez Holden) are electrifying.


This is a powerful production of outstanding quality. A play that manages to feel utterly contemporary in spite of the passage of time.


(c) Naia Headland-Vanni 2017

Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights -Butterfly Psyche -Review

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 5:10 AM Comments comments (0)
Wuthering Heights

Adaptations are a contentious issue. The writer of an adaptation faces an array of dilemmas: How can he/she tell this story without alienating those who have not read the original? How can he/she tell this story from a new perspective? And (most pertinently), how can one effectively translate written narrative into dramatic (and visible) action? Accomplishing all of this is by no means a small feat. At best, it takes an excruciating amount of thought, time and tenacity. At worst, it is an utter waste of time. For everyone. However, when all of these are considered and well executed, it is a rare and very special find indeed. Wuthering Heights by Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre is certainly one of those treasures, adapted for stage by Dougie Blaxland with a text that draws upon the art and energy of simple storytelling. Blaxland holds true to the original format by choosing to present this story from the perspective of Nelly (a maid to both Catherine's) and Lockwood (a new tenant of Heathcliff's). He asserts the theatricality of this concept by heightening the intensity and commitment with which they tell each other (and at times the audience) their anecdotes, thus resulting in a clear, elegantly structured and fluid narrative.


From the writing, to the minimal casting and set design (or lack thereof); this production brilliantly demonstrates the power of economy. The two actors, Alison Campbell and Jeremy Fowlds, playing Nelly and Lockwood, take on multiple and convincing roles as they tell each other their stories of Wuthering Heights and its residents. The set is practically bare, opening up limitless possibilities and avoiding the restrictions which may come with a naturalistic set. Campbell and Fowld's engagement with the story they are telling is masterful and driven with a great deal of energy. There is a particularly strong scene in which Cathy tells Nelly of her intention to Marry Edgar, as Heathcliff has been demoted to too low a social ranking for her to marry him now, even though she loves him and states that he is more herself than she is.


Campbell plays both characters, switching effortlessly from one to the other with clarity and precision. Throughout the first part of the story (up until Cathy's death), the character interactions are strong. Yet during the second half, whilst acting the various characters of the play embroiled in Heathcliff's revenge and dynasty, I couldn't help but feel a drop in their connection toward one another. Heathcliff is far more passive in this section too with no real sign of his malice, but I can't help but feel that this would have added a welcome catalyst for the actors to work off in the second part of this play.


Jazz Hazelwood's direction is sharp, well-realised and manages to expertly lead the actors through the complexity of their many shifts and character changes with success and vivacity. She navigates a concept, which could have easily slipped into absurdism into an elegant, engaging example of storytelling.


This is a play that will please even the most avid lovers of the book, whilst holding its own as a brilliant production in its own right. A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating piece of theatre that held the audience's attention from start to Finish. I look forward to seeing more from both Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre.


(c) Naia Headland-Vanni


Arnos Vale Cemetary, Bristol

Produced by Butterfly Psyche.

Seen on the 9/10/2014.

Jane Eyre

Much like his Wuthering Heights adaptation, Dougie Blaxland composes a succinct, engaging and elegant piece of theatre with Jane Eyre. Fluidly weaving Eyre’s past with her present (a strong decision); he manages to capture the superstitious, gothic tone and sense of mystery within this tale with great strength. By sustaining the role of narrator (one of many taken on by Alison Campbell), one could be led rapidly and effortlessly through the stages of this heroine’s turbulent life, without sacrificing Jane’s characteristic vulnerability and intensity. Here is a writer of technical brilliance, with a rare gift for bringing classics to life with loyalty, energy and intrigue.


Jazz Hazelwood directs this play with a finite eye for the nuances of characterisation. Accentuating each shift of character and scene with clarity and distinction, leaving no crevice overlooked - she charges each dramatic moment with textured and familiar tones.


Campbell leads this show with a performance worthy of any west-end theatre, taking on every character as well as being the sole storyteller. Losing herself in dramatisations, whilst ensuring that she holds the audience in her story, she fills the stage with the energy of several performers. Campbell achieves something close to magical with this performance, often leading us to forget that the stage is (virtually) empty and convincing us that her multiple character interactions have coexistent lives of their own. The chemistry and romantic energy between Jane and Rochester was tantalising. The fact that they are both played by the same actor is astonishing.


With perfect simplicity, the technical team conjure a clear and strong sense of time and place, using lighting to signify its own specific (and often eerie) atmosphere, taking us through the sombre phases of Jane Eyre's past.


Perhaps, one thing missing from this production was the looming menace of Bertha which could have added a powerful intensity to the lead-up to their doomed day of matrimony. A description of her first, obscured sighting and a dramatic scene in which Rochester's bed has been set alight, certainly introduce us to her unexplained presence; but it isn't until the night before Jane's wedding that we witness any unease on her part, which doesn't quite hold our suspicions with the strength of Bronte's masterpiece.


A fantastic piece of theatre and one that I could not recommend strongly enough.


(c) Naia Headland-Vanni 2014


Jane Eyre by Butterfly Psyche at Redmaids Theatre, Bristol


'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

Adapted by: Dougie Blaxland

Directed by: Jazz Hazelwood

Starring: Alison Campbell


Butterfly Psyche

Sleeping Beauty Review - The Old Vic

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 5:10 AM Comments comments (0)


Sally Cookson’s production of Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic intertwines the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ with traditional Welsh Folk Tale ‘The Leaves that Hung but Never Grew’, offering a fresh perspective on life after ‘the kiss’. Cookson has chosen to reverse the gender roles of Sleeping Beauty (now Prince Percy) and the Prince (now Deilen), creating a refreshing opportunity for our female lead to be pro-active in this fairy tale.


The story begins with a distraught Prince Percy (played with vibrant, naïve enthusiasm by David Emmings), his kingdom and parents desperately unable to soothe his sorrow. He is approached by his heroine, Deilen (a direct and empowered performance by Kezrena James), who hands him his journal detailing his entire life from birth to the present. Cursed to prick his finger and fall asleep on his sixteenth birthday until the kiss of true love awakens him, Percy and all his human kingdom succumb to a 100-year slumber. Fortunately, whilst on her quest to discover the leaves that hang, but never grew, Deilen discovers his body and administers CPR to what appears to be a casualty. Thus, awakening our prince.

Elated by the prospect of leaving the palace for the first time, Percy joins Deilen on her adventure where they embark upon their slow-burning, but inevitable relationship. A magnificent trio of musicians (Ruth Hammond, Brian Hargreaves and Pat Moran) carry the tone of the performance with a textured and enveloping score, including some wonderful musical numbers sung (expertly) by the ensemble - ranging from lively rock-n-roll to hauntingly sombre elegies.


The Fairy Godmothers are a tribe of wonderfully comical Women’s Institute members. Their choice to exclude the black sheep of the circle, Sylvia (chillingly played by Stu Goodwin), from Percy’s first birthday celebration results in the familiar, outraged curse. But what strikes me with this production, is that amongst the hilarity of their performance, the Godmothers are rather passive in the path of Percy’s fate. With the exception of reducing Sylvia’s curse from a death sentence to one with a chance of salvation, they do nothing more to help their Prince awaken from his spell. They simply sit and wait, producing tapestry for a hundred years. Never giving up hope, but never actively fighting for him.


The choice to switch the genders of the prince and princess appears to be more about exploration than academic interrogation. A welcome statement for our young audience members allowing the female character a chance to serve a purpose greater than marrying a prince. However, it feels curious to me that within fairy tales we often see the female lead’s fate turn around at the hands of a rich man who will provide for her eternally. Yet, when our lead is a man (as is the case in this story), it matters not that his heroine is penniless. An uneven dynamic that I would have enjoyed to see put to question. However, I must discern the fact that Cookson’s production was first and foremost created as an enjoyable Christmas show for young people not a platform from which to cross-examine gender (in)equality. A refreshing idea here is that the heroine gains a dimension of her own – a back story. The chance to become much more than a dimensionless saviour, offering her ‘man’ much more than the façade of wealth and good fortune. However, Deilen’s heart-breaking story feels ill-placed and poses a structural issue within this performance, interrupting an otherwise fluid journey.


This is an exciting, expertly produced production of stellar quality for young audiences and grown-ups alike (it’s the adults who laugh the hardest). A performance which refuses to speak down to the young that will possibly appeal more to the older siblings of fairy tale enthused children than the little ones themselves.


(c) Naia Headland-Vanni 2015

continues until Jan 17th 2016

Photography Steve Tanner