Staff writer Connor Williams reviews the delightfully dark show “Ruination” and then interviews its director, Ben Duke.
Planning a trip to the Underworld this Christmas? Beneath the main stage of the Royal Opera House is the subterranean Linbury Theatre, where Hades and Persephone are representing Jason and Medea in a postmortem murder trial. While deciding Medea’s (Hannah Shepherd) guilt over the death of her brother, Jason’s second wife, and her own two children, the trial also concerns a custody battle over the two boys in the afterlife.
An astounding production unlike any other you will see this Christmas, Director Ben Duke and company Lost Dog’s “Ruination” is a brilliantly devised piece that combines comedy, music, contemporary dance, and storytelling. The show opens with Hades (Jean-Daniel Brousse) asking the audience why they have come to see a show called “Ruination” at Christmas time while “the Nutcracker is going on upstairs”. All the while he is dressed in a butcher’s curtain, with Jason’s dead body (Liam Francis) lying on a coronary slab next to him. Immediately we are led into the darkness and the comedy to come. The enchanting juxtaposition of wit and tragedy follows us throughout the rest of the production.
Lost Dog’s alternative approach is what makes it so well suited for an alternative telling of the story. In an interview with Roar, director Ben Duke stated that the idea behind Lost Dog is to take numerous existing styles and, from that, create something entirely new. He described it like a “mongrel dog” — an idea echoed by the company name — that has its origins in one breed but has evolved to become its very own entity. Through this lens, as well as Ben’s self-claimed “naturally contrarian” character, the story of Jason and Medea seemed like a good fit for a Christmas show. For Ben, it was a flip side to the Christmas story, one that was not filled with love, birth, and joy, but exactly the opposite of that.
Once we are settled in the underworld and both Jason and Medea are vigorously reanimated in the underworld, the trial begins. The testimonies, told in flashbacks, will make you laugh as hard as you cry and show you that, sometimes, the myths we are told change when considered from another perspective. While history famously condemns the “sorceress” Medea as the vengeful jealous wife, “Ruination” helps us understand that life is different behind closed doors, and that sometimes we don’t get to hear the stories that need to be told the most. In harmony with this, the amount of variation in artistic techniques keeps the audience open to the story in new and surprising ways. Dance gives us something words cannot, as does music; in a show about what we can and can’t believe, using mixed-media storytelling gives us the tools to build our own understanding.
In this tale, we see that it is Medea who stole the famous golden fleece, and if it were not for her Jason would’ve been burnt to ashes by fire-breathing oxen. Later on, once Medea and Jason have moved on with their lives, we meet them as a tired disenfranchised couple. Medea has earned some money teaching “Pilates” and Jason has gotten a few acting jobs. But it is not until Jason comes home one night to tell Medea he is starring in his very own biopic film that we discover the world has started writing Medea out of their heroic story.
The marriage declines as the story goes on, but this time we see a version that may explain Medea’s actions. However, we can never be sure if anyone is truly innocent. In this exploration of an ancient relationship, we see that there are many sides to every conflict; that there is rarely a villain for villainy’s sake. Can we feel some empathy for Medea if the truth is as ugly as once thought? To what extent is Jason to blame, was he lying all this time?
In the end, we are left with a live rendition of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a pity”, a fitting tribute to the tragic tale, asking “how we break each other’s hearts and cause each other pain”. If you are after a pantomime, this is not the show to see, but if you want something thought-provoking, tragically beautiful, and wickedly funny, then I recommend you book your tickets now.
“Ruination” is playing at the Royal Opera House until 31 December. You can book tickets here.