Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review: 'Medusa' at Sadler's Wells Theatre, 22nd October 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

Even just a couple of hours after seeing it, Jasmin Vardimon's Medusa is already becoming a kaleidoscopic tangle of images in my head. Men clutching their collapsing, tubular heads. Women-dolls swept off stage with a broom like trash. A shadow fighting to overthrow its owner. A woman with her head encased in coils of rope. A sunbather in a gas mask reclining under industrial smokestacks.

After many years of reviewing shows I've (perhaps unfairly) developed a slight scepticism about dance theatre. This is partly because the subtleties usually go straight over my head, but also partly because they seem like an open invitation for performers and creators to disappear up their own arses.

Medusa doesn't do that - and even if they did they'd make it look cool. This is presenting a focused, entertaining and chill-inducingly perceptive look at the various manifestations of misogyny in society. 

A warning for fans of Greek mythology: this is is in no way a retelling of the story of Medusa. The snake-haired gorgon does appear, but this is more of a meditation on the themes, meaning and legacy of the character. Thematic threads include Medusa's petrifying and transformative gaze, that in many European languages the word for jellyfish is 'medusa', Sartre's notion of Medusa's 'objectifying gaze' and a distinctly contemporary demolition of male entitlement with a distinctly #metoo flavour too it.

There's a lot going on besides that, but Vardimon weaves it all into a propulsive, taut and powerfully engaging piece of theatre that has a palpable intellectual depth and anger as its bedrock.

My favourite bits tended to involve vast billowing sheets of plastic spread across the stage. Though physically fragile they end up bearing a hell of a lot of thematic weight - being simultaneously the ocean waves, the body of a jellyfish, an indication of how female sexuality is packaged and commodified, the suffocation and silencing of women, a symbol of ecological damage amidst an increasingly artificial world and... well, you get the picture.

Though not everything in the show achieves this rich depth, most things come pretty damn close. It gives proceedings a fractal element, the closer you peer at what's going on and the harder you think about what you're seeing the more layers of meaning you excavate.

That excavation isn't the walk in the park it might be with some other shows as Medusa fearlessly strides into extreme territory. There's a barely abstracted gang-rape towards the show's conclusion, dramatising the mythological Medusa's rape by Poseidon and her subsequent snakes-for-hair punishment by Athena. 

Here a female dancer falls prey to countless spidery male hands that claw at her genitals as she struggles to break free. These hands travel up her body and obscure her face, eventually leaving her face ringed by a halo of shuddering fingers standing in for snakes. It's magnetic stuff and a moment that's destined to float around in my head for some time to come yet.

I'm just scratching the surface of what's in the rest of Medusa. While I don't know that much about dance, it's obvious that these are real top-of-the-line performers (with Joshua Smith's preeningly entitled man an obvious highlight), the show looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish and the soundtrack, which mixes classical with pop (the best song being Yael Naïm's grrrreat New Soul) and electronica (including Aphex Twin - be still my beating heart!), kicks ass.

To be honest, the whole package kicks ass in a sustained and impressively thorough manner. Medusa is billed as a celebration of the company's 20th anniversary - I can't think of a better way they could have showcased their talents.

Medusa is at Sadler's Wells until 24 October. Tickets here.

Production shots by Tristram Kenton

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