Interview with Akiya Henry and Stephanie Levi-John from Medea, Bristol Old Vic.

Interview with Akiya Henry (Medea/Maddy) and Stephanie Levi-John (Jason/Jack),
By Naia Headland-Vanni.

1. It can be very easy to read Medea as a hysterical, jilted woman who resorts to murder because a man doesn't love her anymore. Although Robin Robertson's adaptation does very well to highlight the reality of her situation, she must still constantly battle the misconceptions of others. For example, Jason states, "if it weren't for this sexual jealousy, you'd agree. Women are all the same. If you're happy in bed then you're happy elsewhere". This reduces all of Medea's rage and the injustice that she is encountering to nothing more than an assumption that she is simply upset because her husband no longer loves her. So how did you work, as a company, to really highlight the truth behind this situation and to encourage the viewer to understand that this is about so much more than pride and sex?

AKIYA HENRY: First and foremost, what really helped is Chino's contemporary adaptation. It informs and heightens Medea's experience, because actually what you get to do is relate it to the present and you can be sat there as a viewer going, 'this could be my sister, this could be my mother, this could be me'. So it makes Medea's struggle, in relation to being in Athens, more present and contemporary and more accessible, which allowed us to really unlock her.
STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: Medea in history has always been seen as this crazy, hysterical woman, so this has been about drawing it back, constantly asking 'why' and drawing it back to the human aspect of her.
AKIYA HENRY: And not forgetting, that this is actually a love story. For me, when I was going through the journey of Medea and Maddy, one of the things that kept coming up within the translation by Robin Robertson was the word "heart". And actually, this woman has had her heart broken. She has been shamed and betrayed - in public. She is encountering this conflict, she wants to hate Jason, but she can't, because she loves him. So when you're following that journey, of a woman whose heart is broken, I think it makes it a little more understandable, rather than a woman who has just gone crazy because a man left her.

2. The similarities between Medea and Maddy's situation are obviously very clear. Ultimately, they both face the same choice, because freedom was never an equal option through their marriages and are therefore left with an unjust battle to fight. But what do you think are the differences between Medea and Maddy that encourage such different outcomes?

AKIYA HENRY: I think one of the things that Chino talks about and that we were exploring was that actually, at some point, we have to see Maddy's liberation and freedom. Whereas you don't necessarily get to see that with Medea. What you experience is her killing her children. We don't know what happens next, ...unless you go onto Wikipedia and ask "what happens after Medea kills her children". Whereas, within the contemporary re-imagining, we wanted to explore what happens to a woman when she realises that she does have the power to take control of her freedom and that in being able to move somewhere with her children, we're sending a bigger message to women that they can take control of their lives. It will be hard and they will have to be brave, but they can do it and don't need to be afraid. What Medea does is inform Maddy on how to become liberated, so what does a woman need to do to experience liberation? That's why we decided it's better for her not to kill her children, but to take her life into the unknown. For us it was really important to send the message with Maddy, that this is how you can acquire your liberation and freedom, if you really want it.

3. Stephanie, being an actor, it is of course part of the job that you will play a character who you disagree with. But, would you say that within these circumstances, it was a bigger challenge? As you are working in an all female cast, making a very strong argument as part of an ensemble about these issues that women are facing. Yet, with Jason/Jack you are speaking against the entire ethic of the play.

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: To be honest, I think I am still going through this process, I think every night when we do it, I find something new and different things that Akiya says as Medea and Maddy stick out to me, which informs how I might respond to it. I play it different every night. I don't try to recreate him. Because at the end of the day, like Akiya just said, It is a love story. So again, if you drive it back to the human aspect of it, its difficult on both sides. The way I've seen it is that he has fallen out of love, perhaps, and has found someone else that he has connected with. We've discussed this, and we don't think they want to hurt each other, it just so happens that it's a battle of truth.
AKIYA HENRY: It's that thing of truth. What is your perception of truth? And one of the things that Steph does brilliantly, is that she plays Jack/Jason's truth. Which is, "well, yeah I've got to get on with my life and this is going to be better for me, for you and for the kids... See ya!"
NHV: So even though he really hurts Medea/Maddy, he isn't setting out with malice.
STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: Yes, cause I don't think he sees himself as the antagonist in the situation, he wants to remain civil for the children. So I don't want to play him as an evil person, because I think that's what would have made him very one-dimensional. From feedback I'm learning that people find him quite lovable. People love to hate him, but by the end still understand where he is coming from. I don't try to play a man, I just try to play the truth. The human within their relationship.
NHV: and it could be genderless
STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: it could be genderless. Exactly. And I'm glad that that's coming across! But it's weird cause you really have to believe it. Like when he says "if we could produce children some other way without need of women, all human misery would end", that's something that I just fundamentally don't believe! When it comes out of his mouth, you're like.... 'Okaaay Jason' (laughs).

4. Akiya, in an interview on women's hour, you said that after the show finishes, you need to take a good 45 minutes to unload yourself of all the weight and emotions that the character is going through because you acknowledge that women are still going through this today. How do you feel about the fact that Medea's battle is still such a relevant issue?

AKIYA HENRY: It's funny. I feel like, with a lot of the classical plays like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Euripides and Chekhov they really capture the female voice very strongly and every time I go into a classical play I get really angry and sad at the same time. Because I'm going, 'oh my gosh. I literally experienced that yesterday!' But at the same time, it kind of makes me smile because I realise that actually these plays still need to live. They still need to live, because if they don't, things cannot change. I've always loved Medea as a character. One of my first questions to the director (George Mann) was that it is really important to me that we don't turn her into a (makes deep wailing sound) kind of woman. Because actually, the struggle that she's going through, is also my struggle. Not only as a woman, but as a black person as well. You know, she talks about how it's really hard for her because she is perceived as a foreigner and that all these men either sexualise her or treat her like a servant. She also talks about how women are reduced to just our emotions and that our emotions don't matter and that as a women, her voice doesn't matter. She is constantly dealing with being silenced. It is so exciting for me, and also upsetting at the same time, because I am going, 'wow. Medea is actually informing me in how I have to move forward to make a difference'. And when I look into the women in the audience each night, I do burst into tears because I know that we are all in the same position. I don't even know them all or know their own stories. So this play has to resonate, and it's not just Maddy saying 'I have to do something for me and my children', its me saying I have to do something for myself, but also for you guys too. And I hope that Medea is doing something for you.
NHV: It was really shocking just how pertinent and relevant this story became when I watched it.
AKIYA HENRY: and to think that that's a man writing this story! A lot of classical plays do have such strong female voices, challenging society and they're written by men.
NHV: which is also quite sad, because you realise that only men are the one's who were listened to, so they are the one's who had to do all the talking.
AKIYA HENRY: And also what is really interesting is that they are using the voice of a woman to challenge society itself and the bureaucracy and the injustices of what society places on each other, but they are using women to do this.

5. Stephanie, between Jason and Jack, is there a character that makes more sense to you in terms of their perspective? Do you think the change within society helps to make one character's views more acceptable that another's?

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: That's a good question. I would say the development of society has made Jason's character more understandable. Purely because, I think there's more of an understanding of women's issues and women's rights now. But even though I think they're very streamlined in their characterisation, I found Jason a bit more difficult to understand, in terms of his sexism.
NHV: So even though you knew that he was from a time when this was more 'acceptable', it didn't make it any easier?
STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: It didn't make it any easier, no. so I think what I had to do, was translate Jason into Jack, into the modern sense. And question, if he was here now, what would he be like as a person? This still made it very hard. His views are very archaic to me. This is one of the oldest plays ever written, and to think that some of those things still translate now, it is difficult, coming from a female perspective to understand and grasp the meaning behind what he says. And these are his true beliefs, so I try not to judge that. But it's difficult. It's very difficult. Really trying to see that everything they do, they do because it's 'right'. And they wholeheartedly have those views on a woman's position. He puts himself on a pedestal like, 'I am doing this for you". And he wholly believes this is right.

Medea is currently running until the 27th of May at the Bristol old Vic
http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/medea.html

A Translation by Robin Robertson
Modern Text written by Chino Odimba
Directed by George Mann
Devised by George Mann and the Company.
Photography by Jack Offord.

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