Open up a newspaper or magazine or flip on the evening news and you can't escape it. Whether it's the dirty details of Martha Stewart's insider stock trading or Winona Ryder's sticky fingers, the only thing Americans seem to relish more than a celebrity's rise to stardom is his or her tumbling fall from grace.
Although we may regard obsession with celebrity as a particularly American and very twentieth-century pastime, watching the Abbey Theatre of Ireland's acclaimed production of the Greek tragedy Medea, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, it's apparent that the ancient Greeks were just as transfixed by the aristocracy and heroes of their day.
"The issues that sit in the middle of these plays are exactly the same issues that sit in the middle of our lives today. I think the play is fundamentally about going home at the end, saying, 'God, human nature, what are we going to do with it?'" says the Irish-born stage and screen actress Fiona Shaw.
Shaw, considered by many to be one of the finest actresses of her generation, has earned near-universal praise for her haunting yet heartbreaking portrait of Medea, that seething, revenge-minded sorceress of Greek lore.
The Abbey's postmodern Medea, with its cinder block and glass set and contemporary dress, won two London Evening Standard Awards in 2001, including a nod to Shaw for Best Actress. In October, it played a sold-out engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, then toured to four North American cities before landing a 12-week run on Broadway. Shaw and the play's director, Deborah Warner, have mined Euripides's 2,400-year-old Greek drama and unearthed a Medea that is at once vengeful, passionate, vulnerable — and shockingly average. This humanized portrait, critics have noted, stands in contrast to the monstrous, child-murdering image usually associated with the character.
Medea's a woman, explains Shaw, who has been betrayed and abandoned by her husband, Jason. While he's busy pursuing a more politically advantageous marriage to the Corinthian princess, Medea finds herself isolated in a foreign country with no family and only a clucking Greek chorus of female onlookers as friends. To make matters worse, King Kreon is about to banish her from his land, which would leave her and her children with nowhere to turn. Because men and women like Medea and Jason hold superstar status, her breakup is being placed under a microscope for all to see and comment upon.
Using sorcery and deception, Medea has risked everything to help Jason snatch away the coveted Golden Fleece, which made him a hero. She murdered her own brother in order to deter the enemies who stood in their way. Says the actress, "She is famous for being brave, and having done very, very big things for love."
However, the tables have turned on Medea. Betrayed and abandoned, she moves from paralyzed despair (in which she jestfully talks of killing her children) to distraught rage to an act of revenge that eventually leads to the unthinkable slayings.
"Famous people have become the mouthpiece of our potential, so what's clever about [Medea] is the implication that celebrity itself is at play in these terrible moments," says Shaw.
The slaughter of the children, she explains, is the last straw in a series of confrontations that have become increasingly unbearable for Medea. After the atrocious act of revenge at the palace, she knows she must kill her offspring before her enemies do the deed first — and far more viciously. "What is not simplistic is that she kills them because she loves them. The audience will see she has no choice."
Shaw is clearly not a woman who's afraid to tackle gritty subject matter. She and Warner have gained maverick reputations for their seven envelope-pushing collaborations, including Electra, Hedda Gabler, The Good Person of Sichuan and a stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Wasteland, which they brought to New York in 1996. For their controversial, gender-bending version of Richard II at the Royal National Theatre, Shaw played the deposed king in a casting that had the European press in a tizzy, with some shouting blasphemy and others showering praise.
The four-time Olivier Award winner has also done her share of movies, including “Three Men and a Little Lady,” “My Left Foot,” “The Butcher Boy” and the recent Harry Potter films as Harry's irascible Aunt Petunia. And she, too, is not immune to the seductive glare of the spotlight. The actress fondly recalls her memorable experience working on the 1993 film “Undercover Blues” with Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid. "I was a baddie and [Turner] was a goodie," she marvels. "There I was hanging off a helicopter and Kathleen Turner was stamping on my hand, and I remember shouting over the Southern California sky, 'I adore this!'"
Ultimately, though, she prefers the power of the stage to the constraints of the movies. "Theatre remains that great free space where one can say unacceptable things you can't in films." No doubt audiences are seeing a few of those over at the Brooks Atkinson.