Ruination review, Royal Opera House: Medea gets a brilliant update through dance

‘Ruination’ offers the underbelly of main stage happy endings  (Camilla Greenwell)
‘Ruination’ offers the underbelly of main stage happy endings (Camilla Greenwell)

Of all the subjects for a Christmas show, choreographer Ben Duke must have picked the most unlikely. Ruination is his retelling of Medea: not just Greek tragedy, but a story where a mother kills her children. Commissioned by the Royal Opera House, it offers the underbelly of main stage happy endings. “They’re dancing The Nutcracker upstairs, and you’ve chosen to come to this,” coos Hades, god of the Underworld, played by Jean-Daniel Broussé. “What does that say about you?”

With his company Lost Dog, Duke has a gift for the flipside of stories. As in his award-winning, one-man Paradise Lost, he looks for the cracks in a narrative, levering them open to find comedy and desperate loss. His brilliant Medea tips Greek gods and heroes into everyday messiness, then wonders, how could she? Did she? How could this happen?

Soutra Gilmour designs the Underworld as a bare backstage space; the river of forgetfulness is a water-cooler. Anna-Kay Gayle’s commanding Persephone brings a pink tutu from the world above. Already bewildered by their own deaths, the human characters are confronted by forms and automated phone systems. Jason and Medea both demand afterlife custody of their murdered children, retelling the story in a vivid mix of speech, song and movement.

Duke prods hard at embarrassment, finding the feelings underneath. Liam Francis’s Jason has dreadful chat-up lines for Medea, followed by a goofily awful dance. He scrunches and wriggles, and it becomes charming and even sexy – because it’s funny, honest. Then Medea, and the audience, watch him trot out all the same moves for his second wife.

Hannah Shepherd’s Medea sees herself pushed out of Jason’s heroic story, then out of his life, her voice turning sour with resentment. Then we hear her trying to calm the children, a frazzled parent urging them to hide, pretending that this is just a game. Is she trying to protect them from a mob, or to conceal her own cruelty?

As the characters dip in and out of movement, Duke slides from comedy to vulnerability, dancers reaching out and wrapping around each other. Music director Yshani Perinpanayagam leads the fine onstage singers from Purcell to George Harrison, an eclectic mix that underlines Ruination’s sharp switches of tone.

Duke isn’t interested in easy answers. Even when the underworld jury comes to a decision, it isn’t a conclusion; how could it be? From funny to desolate, Ruination sits with the depth and the mess of love.

‘Rumination’ is on at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House