Ho ho ho Merry Ancient Greek tragedy – said no one ever. Correction, said Ben Duke of Lost Dog with his Medea-inspired Xmas (?) show Ruination at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre.
I had the pleasure of seeing the late Helen McCrory in Medea at the National Theatre back in 2014. The story isn't an easy one, with Medea slaying her two children (and Glauce, the new wife) in an act of revenge on her husband Jason, or so it first seems. As the story's been around since Euripides wrote it in 431 BC, it's been analysed and produced in many different ways. Some see Medea's actions as a direct reaction to the Patriarchy – if you can't beat them, destroy them etc. Today's question is how does Duke read it…?
In a word: sympathetically. But of course, it's not that simplistic.
One doesn't need to be a Lost Dog aficionado to understand who Duke is. It's all in the work: he's a visionary, a storyteller, someone who understands emotion intuitively, an original, and a person with great taste in music. The choices of music absolutely make this production into the profound experience it is – well, and everything else.
Duke makes the Linbury feel like it never has before. He really takes you to the Underworld in both sense and minimalist visual, where the newly dead arrive and have to face the reasons why they've found themselves there.
Ruination is framed within a court case led by husband and wife team Hades (Jean-Daniel Broussé) and Persephone (Anna-Kay Gayle) as Counsel. When Jason (Liam Francis) arrives, he decides to formally place grievances against Medea (Hannah Shepherd), and this causes the trial to initiate. We the audience become the jury, and Duke can start to do what he does so well – tell stories.
It's not the average creator who can take something as potentially epic as Greek mythology and make it feel so accessible. Relevant even. And not in just a conceptual way – but an actual, tangible study of humanity. All of it.
Duke also has brilliant taste in artists – as all of the cast are stellar. Being stretched as dancer-actor-musicians at times. If I'm being honest, it's difficult to define the experience, let alone try and describe it… but here I go!
In short, the trial structure allows for flashbacks and consequently explains how the characters have come about their predicaments. But Duke's approach also addresses each individual's understanding of their own behaviour, in reaction to that of others. Sounds highfalutin, but actually isn't this what we all mostly contemplate throughout our days? “I only did x because y did z – am I right? Am I wrong?”. An individual who doesn't reflect is a danger to themselves and others, but reflection with no boundaries isn't the answer either. See what Duke does? He makes you think and possibly lose your audience in a wannabe philosophical musing. Eek!
Duke utilises movement like he uses other elements of theatre. With intention and no superflu. Everything he offers has purpose – whether it be stillness or the total opposite. Each narrative episode of the trial saga features a contemporary dance movement element ranging from heartfelt, physical pas de deux verging on the violent, solos that communicate inner turmoil, group work that embodies abject grief, defiance, and death, and easy jazz bringing a humorous lightness to the weighted proceedings.
The Linbury really does the production justice. It's the perfect size, especially when opened up as it is with no sets. The ladder descending from the roof onto the stage emphasises the subterranean, Underworld atmosphere, and the doorway exit into the afterlife is incredibly atmospheric – figures disappearing into the fire-infused, smoke-laden unknown.
The characters wear many different variations of clothing (Soutra Gilmour), all having a similar feel throughout: simple, manageable, and wearable. Basically, Jil Sander modernity via ancient Greece, with the odd embellished, characterised element or prop.
The piece wouldn't work without the text. And early on I started thinking this is drama with dance. But by the end I realised the piece totally wouldn't work without the movement either – a Gesamtkunstwerk. Something many try to ascertain but very few manage. Duke does.
However, one aspect left a bad taste in my mouth. Mockery. When entering the space, one sees four television screens in the downstage left corner of the stage playing the Royal Ballet's version of The Nutcracker. I immediately assumed it was more ironic than anything else, but personally speaking it went too far in a warped direction. Broussé as Hades has two separate monologues, the second wearing a tutu where, of course, he mocks The Nutcracker, and therefore, essentially ballet itself. I'm aware it's (probably) all done in good humour, but my own baggage (caused by others!) means I can't take this kind of thing lightly. As a ballet teacher I've witnessed (contemporary dance) practitioners saying publicly, in educational environments no less, with zero reservation: “I HATE ballet” – and I find it so disrespectful. It's unrealistic to assume everyone will like or comprehend things in the same way, but there should always be space for respect and decency. I'm aware humour isn't easy, but I appreciate it far more when it doesn't stoop as low as mockery for cheap laughs. Not my scene. Pretty sure I'm in the minority – or perhaps not when in the Goddamn Opera House!
Anyways minus this issue, I highly recommend you take my waffling with a pinch of salt and categorically go and see the show for yourself. You won't be disappointed. It's worthwhile just to see Hannah Shepherd's execution of Duke's reading of Medea. His interpretation is one of complexity and trauma – an individual who made desperate decisions in relation to survival and external dangers. And the end results not necessarily being what people assume Medea's motives for them were. It's complicated stuff – but thankfully Shepherd makes the complex, emotional narrative clear and genuine. If she doesn't get the Olivier, I'll eat my (ballet) bun! It's a performance in a totally different league.
I also want to mention the other cast members and musicians as they all play pivotal parts and elements in the show: Miguel Altunaga as Aeetes, Maya Carroll as Glauce, and musicians Keith Pun, Sheree Dubois and Yshani Perinpanayagam. Gesamtkunstwerk all the way to Christmas Day. Dankeschön Herr Duke!
Ruination runs at the Linbury Theatre until 31 December 2022