“I thought it was about time I came back and offered Liverpool a little more astonishment…”
Leading queer theatre-director Neil Bartlett talks about bringing his new show Medea, Written in Rage to Liverpool’s Homotopia festival.
So Neil, what made you want to tell this story?
Medea is one of those stories that never goes away. She’s an archetype – the eternal outsider, the “other”. Her “darkness” makes her very powerful – but then, when she leaves her homeland and is forced to live according to the rules of the patriarchy, she discovers how totally powerless she is. And that leads her to the most savage kind of rebellion. When I heard about this new version of the story, a one-man show written by the queer French Haitian playwright Jean Renee Lemoine, I was straight away intrigued. I think reclaiming Medea from her legend and letting her tell her story in the present tense is a great idea. Plus Jean Renee’s Medea is written to be played by a gender-queer man, and I know from experience that when you need to unleash real rage and power on stage then fucking with gender is a great place to start.
You’ve worked with a lot of queer performers over the years – John Cameron Mitchell, Bette Bourne, Justin V Bond – why did you want to work with François Testory?
François and I have known each other ever since we first collaborated back in the 1980’s. He is an extraordinary performer. He’s worked with Lindsay Kemp, DV8, Gecko – so he brings incredible authority on stage with him, plus more than a touch of glamour. This piece isn’t dance, but he brings a dancer’s understanding to every gesture he makes. And I think the fact that François himself is an immigrant is important for the show too. English isn’t his first language, and the fact he sometimes slips back into his mother-tongue gives his embodiment of Medea an extra twist. You sense that he really knows the strange place of simultaneous power and powerlessness that being between genders and between countries can put you in.
Tell us about the music in the show.
Phil Von is an electronic performer who is based in Paris and works all over Europe. He’s on stage with François during the show, creating live electronic landscapes around Medea’s voice. The score for the show is a real cultural mosaic; Phil mixes live Middle-Eastern instrumentation (the zurna, a savage-sounding kind of Azerbajani flute, opens and closes the show) with everything from trash disco to grand opera…. plus of course there is François’ incredible singing voice. It’s not often you meet a performer who can throw in a line to two from Puccini’s opera Tosca – sung at the original pitch – whenever s/he feels the need to really let rip.
You’ve shown your work everywhere from the National Theatre to the Vauxhall Tavern – why did you want to bring this show to Homotopia?
Because it’s a great festival in a great city. It takes the best of new LGBT+ work and hooks it up with an audience that really wants to explore how LGBT+ culture can connect with contemporary lives in all their diversity. Plus (on a personal note) I last brought a show to the Unity Theatre back in 1983! I remember travelling to the gig in full Siouxsie Sioux slap, wearing a 1940’s ball-gown with a leather jacket over the top. I thought it was about time I came back and offered Liverpool a little more astonishment…
Medea, Written in Rage will be at Lancaster Arts, University of Lancaster on 31 October, Unity Theatre, Liverpool as part of the Homotopia Festival on 1 November, and Birmingham Repertory Theatre 17-18 November. Click here for more information and tickets.