Yann Messager reports from Ile-de-France
23 November 2023
Astrid Bayiha’s latest creation, “M comme Médée,” is a tediously self-indulgent piece that attempts to hide behind flourishes of mythological reminiscence and song. Posing as a feminist project, it rather seems that the inspiration of the production stems from a particularly painful break-up with what no doubt had to be a most despicable and hateful male. So two-dimensional are both the female and male characters, so Manichaean the sempiternal brawl between the Original Man and the Original Woman that one’s credulity is tested.
Photo credit: Benny.
Médée, from the Greek myth, is essentially played by four actresses who each take turns, while there are three Jasons. One Médée does not bear the hatred for her other half that the others do, just like one of the Jasons. These two are similarly bedecked in orange dresses, and their smoothness as well as androgenous quality seem to portend what the true harmonious couple of the universe would look like.
The issue is that the philosophical foundation of the play is excessively superficial. A good third of the play consists in a wall of Médées yelling insults at the cowering men while potently puffing out their chests and hitting them in a coordinated way. That this is a thrill-ride for the actresses is certain. But none of them seem to have the technical skill to make any of this entertaining. The project is painfully self-indulgent in that at no point does the rich array of players successfully or playfully communicate amongst themselves. Rather, we are confronted with monologue after monologue of truly dubious quality.
Most of these monologues are terribly (and unfortunately) over-played. Men embodied by the Jasons are cudgeled in little inventive and repetitive insults for what feels like well over an hour. At one point, Daniély Francisque’s Médée runs into a corner and stoops down in a sort of awkward, unintentional manner. She squats in a strange manner before continuing the strange shrieking she had already been letting out for ten minutes. At this point, laughter could be heard in the audience, which reassured me that I was far from being alone in believing that this was all being over-egged. The aesthetic and philosophical barrenness of all this is tentatively made up for by what is meant to be transcendent and sorrowful musical moans and incantations. But these fail to impress as the locomotive of the story cannot truly be said to have ever left the station.
The first Médée, Maidai (Fernanda Barth), manages to convey a solemn and antique air in the opening minutes, right after the prophet Coryphée alights in a silken manner on stage before the flowing blue sails of the set. But very quickly, her obsession with her princess-like features turns into a self-righteousness that becomes nauseating once we are exposed to the half-hour of frustrated rambling. Explicit sexual references and depictions in her monologue occasionally stir audience interest but this cannot be said to have any value in and of itself.
To summarize, the philosophical climax of the place is this. Men cannot truly love women because they love women through themselves. And in the waiting, women suffer because their true selves can thus never be apprehended by the other sex. Swala Emati’s Médée and Nelson Rafael-Madell’s Coryphée are Adam and Eve before the Original Sin. But in the last scene, before the lights fade, we see the two Jasons surrounding Emati’s Original Woman, with the Original Man far behind on some steps. Are we then to intimate that it is woman’s plight to be surrounded by treacherous and misunderstanding men?
The men of the play (Anthony Audoux and Josué Ndofusu) are under written. Their monologues are not meant to convey the complex and ambiguous minds of thinking human beings (no matter their position in material dialectical oppression) but rather to serve as punch bags for yells and shrieks. We are meant to laugh at their idiocy, and indeed, we do. But my question here is: what does this bring us? Shouldn’t dramatic storytelling expose beings in their indelible and furtive rawness? Rather than depict the punch bags we use in our minds to cajole ourselves faced with the harrowing horror of the world? We have all conjured up these fumbling baboons in our minds to understand sexism and sexual violence. So, are we supposed to just suffer for two hours without truly experiencing the intangible murkiness? Are we just supposed to sit down in silence to watch the poster boys of the latest Ministry for Equality’s campaign against sexual and sexist violence? Or can we be taken a bit more seriously?
But the saving grace of the play lies in the stellar acting of Josué Ndofusu. He is astounding in how he manages to take a livid text and breathe complexity and life into it. He has a powerful vulnerability and a ferocious existential anxiety which manage to paint a beautifully perplexed man. This is perhaps the only portion of the play that pushes us down a path of understanding.
Also of great interest were the post-colonial aspects of the play and the elements that had meaning in terms of race. Bayiha’s creation plunges Caribbean French Creole into ancient Greece and in doing so projects all of this language’s nobility and splendor. The more acute intersectional domination of the African-origin women of the play is dealt with here. And it is a great pleasure to see them sing proudly in beautiful Creole, standing fiercely before their male oppressors who taunt them for their “savagery.” This bold assertion of the languages and diversity of Francophonie should be encouraged.
Swala Emati’s hauntingly swooning singing in the language transports the audience to the cradle of humanity. And in her better, perfectly-controlled moments, Daniély Francisque’s captivating utterance of Creole words gives her a martial and brazen allure which seems also to be the closest the piece gets to uncovering the truths of fierce and excruciating resentment, resistance and ultimately emancipation.