Neil Bartlett is a theatre legend in the UK. As a director and writer, he challenged stereotypes and shocked the mainstream theatre community and society in the 1980s. He went on to lead some of the most respected dramatic institutions in Britain.
Medea, Written in Rage, comes to Sibiu Theatre Festival this year, with Neil Bartlett as its director. We spoke to Neil mid-rehearsal for Medea. We asked him about his theatre career and asked him…
Why should people come to see Medea at Sibiu?
When François Testory, who plays the character of Medea, first appears on stage in an extraordinary gown, surrounded by smoke and lights, and with a live electronic score, your feeling is: 'Wow – what is that? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is he old? Is he young? Where has he come from, this creature?' He has an extraordinary sense of otherness, of outsider-ness.
This is an incredible spectacle, with huge contemporary resonance. We have performed Medea all over the UK, from tiny venues to huge theatres, and people have always responded to it.
What is the story about?
Medea is most famous from the classical Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts. She’s a witch, an adulteress, and a stateless person. She is always depicted as the great outsider who spends her life on the run.
This version of the story, written by the French actor and dramatist Jean-René Lemoine, brings out the contemporary resonances of the story. When we judge Medea and brand her a witch and a villainess, it is not only because she’s a woman of transgressive sexuality, but also because she says: ‘I will not be treated as a whore.’ We ‘other’ her because she’s foreign, and because she won’t play by the rules of society.
In the classical version, Jason, the ‘hero’ of the Golden Fleece, steals her away from her homeland and takes her to his country. The deal is: 'now you’re in my country, you have to forget who you are, leave your whole identity behind and play by the rules of your new country'. I think that’s an idea that has a lot of resonance in contemporary Europe.
Tell us about your writing and directing career up till now
I started off a thousand years ago as a director for an unknown little theatre company called Complicite in London – in fact, we were first promoted by the British Council in 1984. I became noticed – or rather, notorious – because I was a very ‘out’ queer artist at a time when that was not an easy thing. This was at the height of the British AIDS epidemic. There was huge focus on the LGBT community, with violent media prejudice and misinformation.
In particular I made one show called A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep. I used stories from the 19th century to reflect on the AIDs crisis, and I performed naked. It caused a stir.
By the mid-90s, I had made an impact. I was now working at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I became artistic director at the Lyric Hammersmith. A lot of eyebrows were raised. People wanted to know why this person who was best known for performing naked in derelict warehouses was running one of London’s major theatres. Well, I answered them. I ran the theatre very successfully for a decade.
Since then, I have done everything from opera at the Edinburgh International Festival to shows at the National Theatre to my own performance projects with British arts organisations such as Artangel, the Wellcome Trust, and Tate.
Back to this show – why did you decide to do Medea?
François and I had worked together in the late 1980s and 1990s. About two years ago, he came to me and said he had found a fantastic script, written by an experimental French playwright, which he wanted me to translate.
I’ve translated several French writers. When he said to me it would be a one-man show with him playing Medea, I knew I had to do it. François is remarkable. He can stand on stage alone for an hour and 20 minutes and impersonate one of the great demanding roles of classical tragedy. He has a fantastic multi-octave singing voice so he can cross genre from text to physical theatre to Arab-style vocalisations and even to Puccini.