Imedea at Stone Nest Theatre
Tucked into the persistent bustle and glaring lights of Shaftesbury Avenue is a former Welsh chapel, built in 1888. Step inside and its stony arches are transformed into stage wings, its holy pews replaced with auditorium seating and its divine altar a striking backdrop for a contemporary art performance. This is the Stone Nest Theatre, a venue partly hosting the 2023 Shubbak Festival, which celebrates contemporary Arab arts and culture in the UK. Audience members file in, and snatches of chatter in Arabic and English fill the space, prefiguring the multilingual performance from SABAB Theatre. Writer, director and actor Sulayman Al Bassam addresses the audience, informing them of the blood-soaked Greek myth of Medea – sourced from trusty Wikipedia, he assures with a grin.
In this modern, intensely political and multidisciplinary interpretation of Euripedes’ ancient tragedy, Hala Omran’s Medea sports a black skin-tight minidress and matching stilettos as sharp as knives. She is a powerful, educated woman, who manoeuvres her online following into political protest. Al Bassam begins with an unsettling contemporary twist to the gut-wrenching ending: Medea has killed her children, and posted a video of their bodies on social media, claiming that the government committed the act, in revenge for her state betrayal. She remains tight-lipped, giving a scornful glower to Al Bassam’s film-noir-esque portrayal of a patriarchal authority figure in an imagined European state.
The scene is irresistibly dramatic, and the unbroken 80 minutes that follow provide a series of evocative scenes, exploring the bitter, complex relationship between Medea and her ex-husband Jason, and Medea’s boundless challenges to a hypocritical, controlling authority. She undertakes a hunger strike, goes off script in a TV interview and vlogs on social media, protesting the treatment of refugees and the secularism that has demonised her innocuous square of black cloth, the Niqab. The dialogue weaves between Arabic, English and occasional French, with subtitles projected at the back of the stage. Without interval and limited relief in the dialogue, the intended consistently intense ambience is hard to maintain, and risks leaving the audience distracted.
The work is more a dramatic and musical performance art than play; Omran’s rich singing melds eerily with eclectic musician/composer duo Two or the Dragon, and Al Bassam intermittently breaks into poetic, current political commentary. Despite the performers’ skill, the overall effect is sometimes disjointed, as the audience struggles to follow a narrative thread, or know if they are even meant to. Nevertheless, Imedea asks pertinent, tangled questions, both global and personal, in inventively bold performance.
Image: Ivan Nocera
Imedea is at Stone Nest Theatre from 29th September until 1st October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.