Theatre reviews: Medea | A Midsummer Night's Dream

Starring Nicole Cooper in the title role, Kathy McKean’s powerful new version of Euripides’ Medea burns with rage and rips at the heart, writes Joyce McMillan

Nicole Cooper as Medea at Bard in the Botanics
Nicole Cooper as Medea at Bard in the Botanics

Medea, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow ****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow ***

Wind blows and rain threatens, as is traditional at the end of June; but in Glasgow, the Bard In The Botanics season is back at full strength for the first time since 2019, with enthusiastic audiences undeterred by a little bit of weather.

The opening show in the Kibble Palace – directed by Bard In The Botanics boss Gordon Barr – represents a slight departure for the company, in that the play is not by Shakespeare. Instead, Barr gives us a new version by Kathy McKean of Euripides’ Medea, first seen at Athens in 431 BC; and to say that McKean’s Medea burns with rage and rips at the heart, in this post-#MeToo age, is almost to understate its impact.

As the play begins, Medea is off stage in the recesses of the palace, roaring her rage at her betrayal by her husband Jason, for whom she abandoned father, home and country, and murdered her own brother. Now living with Jason and their two young sons in Corinth, she is devastated to learn that he is to set her aside, and marry the young Corinthian princess Glauce. It is the working out of that rage – strengthened by Medea’s legendary status as daughter of a king and granddaughter of a god – that forms the whole narrative of Euripides’ short drama.

In Kathy McKean’s new 90-minute version, Medea is played with stunning force by Bard In The Botanics star Nicole Cooper, with powerful support from Isabella Joss as the Nurse, Johnny Panchard as Jason – shamelessly gaslighting Medea with denials of her key role in many of his heroic victories – and Alan Steele as Creon, king of Corinth.

In our culture, it is sadly not so uncommon to hear of men who have killed their children and themselves, rather than let their former partners move on to a new life. It takes a playwright with the mighty radicalism of a Euripides, though, to imagine the situation reversed, and the huge, agonising resolve of a proud woman unable to accept such treatment without taking the ultimate revenge.

And more than 2,000 years on from the original, in a version that brings a sharp edge of 21st century language to the story, we still find ourselves gasping at its boldness; and at its insight into the way patriarchal power trades on the force of mother love, to keep women forever in their place.

Meanwhile, out on the grassy slope beyond the plant-houses, Jennifer Dick’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a jolly affair, full of young actors coming to terms with Shakespeare’s poetry at its most lyrical and brilliant, as well as more familiar Bard In The Botanics faces. The vital link between youthful anarchy and the more profound and poetic aspects of the play is Sam Stopford’s playful yet commanding Puck, who gathers all the threads of the drama together in an outstanding performance.

Elsewhere, there is much experiment and merriment, as Dick turns one of the male lovers into a girl, and deftly switches the roles of Oberon and Titania, so that Titania becomes the author of all Puck’s magic and mischief-making with the four lovers, while Oberon becomes the love-struck victim enamoured of an ass. It’s hilarious and often quite fitting to hear Shakespeare’s story reinterpreted by a crowd of onstage youngsters singing 21st century hits in raucous unison, as this company frequently do. And if that sound doesn’t quite match the ground-rocking magic of Shakespeare’s poetry, the energy is terrific; and Puck’s final farewell remains unforgettable, as night begins to fall over the gardens at last.

Both at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 9 July, https://www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk/