Medea: A Current Interpretation of an Ancient Tragedy

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Euripedes is like the Quentin Tarantino of Ancient Greece,” said Alessandra Occhiolini ‘17, who plays Medea in Robinson Jeffers’s free translation of the eponymous play.

This weekend, director Joshua Wolfsun ‘16 brings Medea to Scott Amphitheater. “It felt accessible to a present day audience,” said Wolfsun, “even though it was written in 1947.”  The play’s Broadway run was a resounding success – the first show got 13 curtain calls, and the show ran for 213 sold-out shows. “The words are stunning, the language is stunning, his understanding of the character is also stunning,” said Wolfsun.

Medea is based upon the Greek legend of Jason, played by Oliver Lipton ‘18, and Medea.

“Alessandra and Oliver have brought … these stunning moments of vulnerability where the relationship, the connection, all of those things break through the shell and are maybe closer to the surface than either Jason or Medea would like,” said Wolfsun.

The actors worked hard to create characters that were much more complex than they are usually portrayed.

“In all of the interpretations that I’d seen … there was relatively little account for Medea as a human being, as a complex figure… she ends up doing this horrendous thing … but what actually is driving her to do that?” said Wolfsun.

In the play, Medea sacrifices everything. She abandons her old life and gives everything she has to Jason, helping him create his legend. All she asks in return is that he remain faithful to her. When he decides that he no longer needs her and abandons her for a relationship that will gain him more political power, she is devastated.

“I think all of us can relate to the experience of loving somebody very much and losing them completely in a way that feels like a betrayal or that was unexpected,” said Occhiolini. “One of the most overarching themes of the play, to me, [is] not so much loss of a person, but loss of a perceived reality.”

In this production, Jason also gains an often overlooked complexity.Though many times he is thought of strictly as the hero figure in the legend, his character has its own depth to it.

“He’s kind of a child despite being put in this larger than life hero role. He’s way over his head… and he’s gotten so used to the idea that power is what makes a man a man that he’ll sacrifice things he genuinely cares about in the pursuit of power,” said Lipton. “Looking at this play as the Greek tragedy archetype, where someone starts out wealthy and successful but falls to nothing based on some tragic flaw, the person who fits that archetype is actually Jason. … I thought it was really interesting … that the antagonist was the tragic figure.”

Adding  a new dimension to an already distinctive performance is the play’s setting in an amphitheater.

“[Jeffers] always had this penchant for the outdoors, for nature. The natural world was what he wrote most of his poetry about,” Wolfsun said, “so doing it outside, too, with all of this natural imagery in the writing has been a lot of fun to see come together.”

“This might be the only chance in your Swarthmore experience to get to see a play in the amphitheater,” said Occhiolini. “Definitely your only chance in your Swarthmore experience to see a Greek tragedy in the amphitheater.”

Because the play is to be performed outside, viewers will need to keep the weather in mind when they come see the show performed.

“Folks should dress warmly,” said Wolfsun. “We’re slated to have good weather.”

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