Good roles for mature women might still be hard to find but, back in 450BC Greece, Euripides wrote a ripper with Medea.
Here is a woman who defied her father by helping her husband Jason steal the Golden Fleece and then, when Jason ran off with another princess, slaughtered her own children in revenge. No wonder everyone keeps reviving it.
This latest, shortened version now at Belvoir Street makes Medea and Jason an Aboriginal couple. The Golden Fleece here is Jason’s cushy job for a mining company which is now ploughing up minerals in Medea’s old country.
But things aren’t happy in the Medea home, with ambition and city wealth poor recompense for their cultural dispossession.
Jason takes to the bottle and is haunted by strange winds, and Medea is harangued for her betrayal by an old woman of her country, taking on the role of the Greek chorus.
This is a powerful adaptation, artfully written and directed by Wesley Enoch, the indigenous director who earlier this year brought us The Sapphires.
Black Medea runs for little more than an hour but our focus never wanders from this domestic/ cultural tale, elevated to high tragedy by the resonances with Euripides’ original.
Against Christina Smith’s metal mesh set, surrounded by the richness of black metallic gravel, Medea knifes her own son rather than see him grappling like Jason with the loss of identity and cultural practices.
Enoch draws charismatic performances from Margaret Harvey and Aaron Pedersen as Medea and Jason, but less successfully from Justine Saunders whose role shifts from doting black granny to the awesome warnings of the Chorus.
Enoch’s remarkable success is to create a language which bestrides an Aboriginal naturalism with the poetic mythmaking of the original. A grating soundscape, complete with dropping coins, adds to the tension.
What is lost though in the quick rush to mythic tragedy is much human detail on the guilt and motivations of Medea and Jason.
The production hovers on the edge of big generalised emotions, an easy pitfall for actors working with the symbolisms of Greek tragedy.
Without more human and cultural explanation in Black Medea, in words or acting, audiences just have to assume that all this magic talk of country and cultural practices is indeed a life and death issue -“ and a worthy motivation for a mother killing her son. It doesn’t really stand up, but the voyage is enthralling.
Black Medea is at Belvoir Street Theatre until 8 May.