With such ground-breaking plays as Earthquakes in London, Love Love Love and 13 under his belt, there can be no doubt that Mike Bartlett is one of the best and boldest of the emerging generation of playwrights. Fresh from the filming of The Town, his first work for television, which should be screened by ITV towards the end of 2012, Bartlett now makes what is practically his debut as director. Never one to shirk a challenge, Mike has adapted the Greek classic Medea, but a Medea that promises to be unlike any other production of the play we have seen. This Medea has travelled thousands of miles from its original location in Ancient Greece and fetched up on a British housing estate which Bartlett describes as 'not dissimilar from the one where I grew up'. Since much of Bartlett's recent work has been set in a dystopian near future, it seems something of a departure for him to turn to Classical Greece for inspiration.
'Whenever I'd seen productions of the Greek classics, I'd admire the acting and the design but I'd always felt a disconnect between me and the plays,' explains Mike. 'It was as if I had no access to them. So I wondered if it might be possible for me to take one of the plays and to make today's audience connect to it in the way that the Athenian public would have done, two and a half thousand years ago.'
Mike makes the point that only a fraction of the plays that were written during the heyday of the Greek theatre has survived, including the works that beat Euripides' Medea into third place in one of the regular competitions that were held in Athens.
'Knowing that about him somehow makes Euripides less remote to me. He's no longer a huge Classical figure but a man who writes a play. Euripides wrote about people as they are - not about idealised kings, queens and gods. His characters were the first not to blame the Gods for their misfortunes; instead, they accepted responsibility for their actions.'
It could not have been an easy task to remove Medea, a play so integrated into the culture of its time, and to locate it convincingly in the everyday present of shopping malls and social media.
'By setting it in the kind of environment which I know well, I suppose that I have put my own experience into the stuff of the piece and I think of it as less a version of Euripides than more of a new play of my own. At the same time, the beats and the rhythms of the play come straight from the original.'
Regrettably, newspaper headlines are often tragically occupied by accounts of family tragedies akin to the situation played out in Medea, when parents, faced with the breakdown of a marriage or a relationship, take a terrible revenge on their former partners. Medea's actions, however horrific, have a grandeur that seems at odds with the domesticity of Mike's chosen location.
'It must be significant that when such events take place in real life, we often talk about them in terms of Greek tragedies,' replies Mike. 'They take place not in a royal palace with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside but within the confines of a suburban setting. I also think that our ambivalence to characters such as Medea, who inspires in us both empathy and revulsion, is reflected in real life. Sometimes people we think we know well will do something that is wholly unpredictable. It is therefore much more likely that a figure such as Medea, very lonely and completely isolated, will behave in the way she does. She is a remnant of the past and people feel uncomfortable in her presence. They'd rather move away from her.'
One of the most enduring of the conventions of classical Greek drama is the Chorus, often a collection of townspeople whose function is to give the audience the information it needs and to comment on the action with the characters in the play. Mike has cleverly given the job of the Chorus to a colleague and a neighbour of Medea's, not forgetting the workman who observes what takes place while building his wall."
'We use the word 'community' all the time,' argues Mike. 'And we're all used to seeing reports on the television news after some terrible event has taken place. You hear neighbours expressing their disbelief and you wonder about the friends who are standing around, seemingly unable to take it in. In the play, Pam and Sarah are the characters who represent those people.'
Ironically Mike's earlier ambitions were to become a director and, to an extent, he started to write plays as a reaction to his failure to find directing opportunities. It was the suggestion of Rupert Goold, the artistic director of hugely successful Headlong and a frequent colleague of Mike's, that he direct something for the company and Medea was the result.
'Much as I'm enjoying the experience of directing, this is not a career move.' emphasises Mike. 'Directing is incredibly difficult, as difficult as writing a play, but I have seen both the craft and the art of directing while in the rehearsal-room. For me, it is a genuine collaboration. The play feels very modern to me as a story of betrayal and we've talked about the way in which the betrayed have taken their revenge, either throwing your ex's possessions into the street or killing their pets. As the director of Medea, I haven't come into rehearsal and started to tell the actors what to do. Rather we have made discoveries together and if scenes don't work or are overwritten on the page, the actors will tell me and I'll cut or do a rewrite. In a way, it's been script development as well as rehearsal. You feel a very different pressure as a director from the one you have as a writer. You're outside the process or at least you experience it second-hand. As the director, on the other hand, you're in the thick of it and you don't see what you really feel about a show until you see it on stage.'
Medea is coming to Richmond Theatre from 20 – 24 Nov. Click here for further information.