Medusa at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Paul Blakemore
Photo by Paul Blakemore

We know Medusa as one of the three Gorgon sisters, with hair made of snakes. Look her directly in the eyes and she will turn you to stone. Perseus, however, managed to defeat her and use her head as a weapon of petrification. But that’s pretty much we’ll ever discover about her. As the writer of Bristol Old Vic’s Medusa, Adam Peck, acknowledges, “As is often the case with female characters in ancient stories, Medusa is an incidental character in a male protagonist’s story.”

After last year’s showing of Minotaur to school audiences across Sedgemoor, the children ‘instructed’ Peck to create a play with an awful monster and more female roles.  How could he refuse? So, he’s come up with Medusa in a new myth that solidly places women at its core.

Embarrassed by his failure to produce a son and heir, Theseus, King of Athens, has kept his womenfolk locked away in the palace for 15 years. His wife, Hippolyta, has produced several sons but each died in very early infancy as a result of a curse placed upon Theseus by the three Fates or Moirae, a punishment for his perpetual evil-doing. Hippolyta has also given birth to many daughters, whom, she believes, perished from the same mysterious fever that befell her male offspring. Only the eldest girl, Ava, survives. Along with her mother, Ava eventually learns that her sisters were in fact murdered by Theseus, who has enlisted the help of his own mother, Aethra, to commit these terrible deeds.

The brilliantly hag-like Moirai are furious – has Theseus not vilely mistreated these women? Has he not used his mother, wasted his wife and ignored his daughter? And to kill all those tiny baby girls – is the female life worth nothing to the King? Is having a boy so important? He can save his newborn son, they promise, if he makes one sacrifice – to kill the person who is most important to him within the hour. But who would that be? There’s a decision to be made.

Peck has created an immensely powerful piece of theatre that is aimed at Key Stage 2 children, interweaving easy-to-follow storytelling with the undeniable message that women are Mighty and that equality is righteous, unavoidable, necessary. Almost as soon as the female actors open their mouths, you can hear Composer Verity Standen’s unmistakable stamp all over Medusa. Kirsty Cox, Anna Wheatly and Jannah Warlow (as the triad of family members/the Moirae/Medusa) tell part of the story in beautiful harmony, belting out Standen’s entrancing Acapella. Particularly effective is the child-birthing scene, the beauty and pain of giving life spouting forth in splendid voice.

The stage is triangular, each woman with her own plinth at the vertices, while a class of school children (the audience) sit cross-legged along each edge. There is constant movement on set as the three female cast members transform from family to Moirae and back again, subtly and very slowly morphing into Medusa (“hissssssss”). Medusa is Woman, every woman –  after all, the only trait of a woman isn’t prettiness, is it? Ha!

Woman is out for revenge on King Theseus (Robin Hemmings), in particular, and the Patriarchy, in general.  Woman will show her strength, Woman will not go unnoticed, Woman will be equal, Woman is incredible.

There are some slightly scary scenes and one which had me welling up with emotion. Medusa herself is as you’d expect, all hair and mesmerising eyes, coming at Theseus from every direction, inescapable. The Old Vic creative team and these four fine-fettled actors have created a Beast of a play, alright!

After the performance, the actors open up the floor, allowing the audience to ask questions and make comments, “My name’s Ava, too.” “What made you want to be an actor?” “What happened to the statue of Theseus? Did he come back to life?” “Was it hard to learn the parts?”

If you ever, ever doubted the value of education in theatre, I urge you to take your kids to see Medusa.


Medusa show at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 11th July

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