115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Myth Within: Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany’s Medea

Daniela Cavallaro, University of Auckland (New Zealand)

This presentation will discuss Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany’s Medea (2012) within the genre of revisionist mythmaking, highlighting its references to Greek mythology, as well as focusing on its attempt to combine the enduring power of Euripides’ tragedy with the very contemporary issue of innocent victims in parental disputes. ​


In the introduction to her 2011 translation and commentary on Euripides’ Medea, Judith Mossman mentions the “recognised social phenomenon” of the “maternal retaliatory filicide”. She explains that the occurrence of a mother who kills her children in retaliation for their father’s actions “is not remote from our experience […] and it was not remote from ancient experience either”.


Australian playwright Anne Luise Sarks commented on the same issue: “The story of Medea is not some distant mythic tale that bears no relationship to life today. There are too many recent stories of parents taking the lives of their own children for us to dismiss its relevance”. And so she approached playwright-actor Kate Mulvany with a project to adapt the story of Medea setting it in contemporary times. Their Medea successfully premiered in 2012 in Australia, 2014 in Poland, 2015 in the United Kingdom and 2016 in New Zealand.


I had the opportunity to attend a performance of the play in Auckland in July 2016, and was struck by the current issues that it brought to the stage, by the originality with which it presented a well-known story, and by the emotional involvement it inspired in the spectators. How do authors make us still care about a story we have now heard repeated for some 2500 years? A story that we think we know already? The answer, for Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’s play, is that their Medea, as one reviewer wrote, “isn’t about a woman who kills her children; it’s about two children who are killed by their mother”.


Sarks and Mulvany’s Medea is set in a very messy bedroom, where two brothers, aged about 10 and 12, wait while their parents’ lives and their own destiny develop offstage. While the children entertain themselves shooting nerf blasters and playing word games, the audience becomes painfully aware that the tragic conclusion of the mythical plot will be played out again in the contemporary South Pacific, and finds foreshadowings of the children’s fate in every nose bleed or nerf-ball induced make-believe death on stage.


Sarks and Mulvany’s Medea, however, does more than just show two brothers locked in their room, playing, and fighting. Explicit and implicit references to their parents’ backstory – how they met and married – and to the events taking place during the course of the play – the spouses’ separation, Jason’s new woman, and Medea’s deathly gifts - abound.


In my presentation, I will insert Sarks and Mulvany’s Medea within the genre of revisionist mythmaking, highlight its references to Greek mythology, as well as focus on its attempt to combine the enduring power of Euripides’ tragedy with the very contemporary issue of innocent victims in parental disputes.