The scene is set like a white box sliced open, with walls that taper narrowly inwards. Walls that are nearly too white – fluorescent, almost. “An abstract space that forms a limitless chasm between imagination and reality,” is written in the theatre programme. Toneelgroep Amsterdam is performing a modern version of Medea.
Anna, played by Marieke Heebink, returns home from a stay in a psychiatric hospital. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, she adds a small amount of poison to his food every day. But that was then. She is determined to do better this time, to pick up the pieces and bring her family back together. There was love once, it couldn’t possibly have disappeared completely. We follow Anna’s obsessive thoughts, we learn of the sacrifices that make her husband’s betrayal unacceptable. But she starts feeling cornered when those around her don’t follow her ideas. She is about to lose everything she has. Jet black flakes fall down around her, gathering ominously on the floor. Meanwhile, her sons unexpectedly appear all over the place, camera in hand, shooting an intimate home movie for a school assignment.
Medea was written by Euripides in 431 BC. The Greek tragedy tells of Medea, who uses her sorcery to help Jason escape. But when he leaves her for a king’s daughter, she cannot bear her grief. She murders their children, the father and his lover. Revenge.
Director Simon Stone based his Medea on a true story that holds each of these ingredients: the case of Deborah Green, a woman who murdered her husband, his lover, and her own sons. Stone states: “I think the theatre may be the most important contemporary art form. Where else do people come together to communally experience and contemplate? Theatre is possibly the best medium through which to comprehend Medea’s decisions.”
Stone’s Medea is like a long stay inside a freezer. It seems inconceivable for a woman to murder her children, the ultimate incomprehensible evil. Yet we read about this sort of family drama time and time again. An evil that has been on repeat for thousands of years.
During a lecture in 2013, Rico Sneller discusses the book The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Little, in which a Nazi officer writes about the murders he has committed:“Should we understand political mass murders such as committed by The Kindly Ones’ narrator? How about Littell’s literary attempt to do so? As already suggested above, this question presupposes that we can understand them, for the impossibility of understanding would deprive the question of its sense.”
Don’t we live understanding lives?
“The desire to understand is a prominent feature of our Western culture. And while modern science tries to understand natural phenomena, contemporary hermeneutics attempts to understand and interpret human expression. On the one hand we can ask ourselves if evil can be fathomed, while on the other hand we can wonder if it should be. Because wouldn’t understanding evil amount to justifying it?”
Rico Sneller suggests we take a different approach to the matter of whether or not we should understand. “I would like to question the inevitability of understanding as an all-encompassing approach of consciousness.” he says.
But the extent of our understanding does not cover the entire mechanisms of human behaviour, nor does it fully include the space of what Rico Sneller has termed the uncanny. We cannot fully reach these dimensions, until we experience them ourselves, because there are no adequate means whatsoever of understanding them. Not yet. “But the horizon of sense and human understanding are always looming”, writes Sneller.
This year’s programme, Dark Water, considers the question of whether man is good or bad by nature and how your answer to this question affects your attitude to life. How far are you willing to go to understand the other? Where do we draw the line? And how does religion view good and evil? What can a person do to be a good human being, and what does that mean?
Head of Studium Generale