Getting to the guts of a classic

Femi Elufowoju Jnr's visceral take on Medea with an all-black cast is reinventing Euripides for modern Britain
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The Independent Culture

The new production of Medea at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a revival of Alistair Elliot's acclaimed translation of Euripides' Greek tragedy. In the Almeida Theatre's 1992 production, Diana Rigg memorably played Medea, who turns serial murderer after she is betrayed by her husband, Jason. Even her own children become victims of her vengeance.

The WYP production is directed by Femi Elufowoju Jnr, who is an associate director at the Royal Court in London. At the Playhouse he works within the young director's scheme, which is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. His most recent credit there is a production of Marcia Layne's Jamaica-set drama Off Camera.

For his interpretation of Medea, Elufowoju marries the traditions of the Greek theatre with those of the Yoruba tribe of western Nigeria, from whom he is descended. Elufowoju found that borrowing from both cultures afforded him more artistic freedom.

"Medea is one of the few classics that can shock modern audiences without trying too hard. The Greek theatre tradition is often based on agonising incidents happening offstage and being reported by messengers or in monologues, but the Yoruban tradition has an earnest desire to explore visually the dramatic highpoints of the narrative. So without being too gratuitous in our use of gore, we are juxtaposing both devices to get a deeper clarity."

The title role is taken by Tanya Moodie, who played one of Helen Mirren's team of detectives in the latest series of Prime Suspect, and was also seen recently in Peter Brook's production of The Suit at the National Theatre. The part of Jason has, at the last minute, been taken on by Elufowoju. Luckily, he is no stranger to the spotlight, having performed at the Royal Court, the NT, and with Theatre de Complicite before diversifying into directing. His last television appearance was in the feature film The Legend of 1900 alongside Tim Roth and Peter Vaughan, and he has recently joined the cast of the BBC World Service soap opera Westway.

"I have come full circle," says Elufowoju. "My last [theatre] performance was playing the lead in Wole Soyinka's The Beatification of Area Boy in 1996 at the Playhouse. With Medea, even though I am playing a part, the most important thing is that I have been busy fulfilling the vision of the play with the actors."

The most striking aspect of that vision is the all-black cast. "There have been some changes, because Alistair Elliot's translation was written for a white cast," he says. Indeed, Elliot has been present in rehearsal to make adjustments.

"It is 11 years since this translation has been performed on a grand scale in Britain," says Elufowoju, "and Elliot has embraced this new vision."

'Medea' is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700) to 13 December