Brett Bailey on medEia: “A straight drama is seldom enough for me”

Third World Bunfight’s medEia, one of the most astonishing pieces of visual theatre/storytelling to come out of post-apartheid South Africa comes to the Baxter for a short run in mid-September. In 2010, the Mail & Guardian newspaper declared it to be ‘best production of the decade’ and the show has won extensive awards all around the world.

In 2012, the production has been transformed from a site-specific format to the more traditional theatre stage to accomodate an extensive European tour. We caught up with Brett Bailey on the eve of the tour to find out more about the production.

Why are you bringing back medEia at this time, or did it never really go away?
Brett Bailey: I love this work. The text is really lyrical, evocative and poetic. It is studded with the lyrics of 80’s pop songs, and locates this dark classical tragedy firmly in the 21st century. I find it works really well with the themes that I explore: the fractious relationship between Africa and Europe, immigration, and ritual. I have been trying to get this staged in Europe for a couple of years already. I was hoping to restage the rambling site-specific version that I made at Spier in 2005 (elected best production of the decade by the Mail and Guardian), but with the cuts to European cultural budgets, such large-scale productions are too costly. So I have adapted the play for stage, and am loving it.

This subject matter seems to never go away, as witnessed by our recent Purgatorio here. What is it about this story that continues to resonate?
Brett Bailey: These ancient stories that survive in our consciousness for millennia have strong universal threads. The story tells of the human yearning for freedom and a better life; of love and betrayal; of jealousy and terrible revenge. We can identify with these emotions, and in Greek tragedy they are portrayed on a vast, archetypal scale.

What can Baxter audiences expect from the new production?
Brett Bailey: A straight drama is seldom enough for me. I always like to knit together several genres and influences. In this production I work with a smoky jazz concert ambiance (brought alive with the sensual drumming of ace drummer Frank Paco), ritual, spoken word artistry, and drama. The fusion gives this dark tragedy a cool, funky feel.

I live this contrast of violence and intensity with beauty and groove.

Tell us a little about your amazing upcoming tours and why you think European audiences are so smitten with this work.
Brett Bailey: medEia will tour Zurich and Basel before we open at the Baxter, and then hit Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and 5 other Dutch cities. I reckon there is interest in this work because there is a good deal of curiosity in Africa at present, and immigration is a hot topic in Europe as the left and right wing political factions battle to gain ground within a context of collapsed economies, unemployment, a huge influx of asylum seekers and the resulting xenophobia. These are the themes I explore in the work.
Also, my works have been touring extensively in Europe for the past ten years, and have become collectible items for festival directors.

What should someone in the audience do /read to prepare for the production?
Brett Bailey: It would be good to read a summary of the Medea plot – scan it on Wikipedia. The text is pretty fragmented, so an overall grasp on the story would be enriching. Otherwise just come with your imagination and an open mind.

Live drumming with the amazing Frank Paco? Wow…What’s the thinking behind that…
As I mentioned, Oscar van Woensel’s script is spangled with the lyrics of pop songs, and the text has a wonderful musicality. I am first and foremost a visual theatre maker, but I decided to start from the sound of the text this time, and really to make the work a rich audial experience. I wanted a lazy, lounge sound to underpin the entire show, and when I thought of the drummer I’d most like to work with, it was obviously Frank. Never thought he’d oblige, but sometimes you got to go out on a limb: he accepted immediately…
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MedEia runs at the Baxter Theatre Centre for 5 shows only, from the 12th to the 15th of September. Tickets are R120 each and can be booked here. Or call 021 680 3962 to enquire about block bookings.