Not only did the production originate in Dublin almost two years ago, but several members of the cast, in addition to Shaw, are Irish. On another level, actress Shaw readily admits that, during the show’s Irish stand, brief, unobtrusive fragments in Gaelic were introduced into the text, just to sweeten the mix.
The Irish National Theatre’s staging of the Greek classic, directed by Deborah Warner, is at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a run that’s termed “limited” mainly because the company, which came to the Brooklyn Academy in early October, had a commitment to play Le Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris in late January or early February.
When the troupe was playing Brooklyn, a Broadway run seemed next to impossible, but pressure was applied and Paris yielded, making the Manhattan stand a reality.
Now, with prize-giving season approaching, the Abbey’s radical rethinking of the play, first performed in Athens in 431 BC, seems to be in line for a cluster of award nominations, Tony and Drama Desk and others, with the nominees likely to include, in addition to Warner and Shaw, Jonathan Cake.
The ruggedly handsome, charismatic Cake has been acting since he was an 8-year-old, and he seems not to know quite why.
“Nobody in our family was involved in the arts,” he said over coffee in a Village diner on a rainy Friday morning, “and certainly no actors.”
As the youngest of three sons of a salesman and his school administrator wife, Cake suspects his parents pointed him in the direction of performing as a way of channeling his boundless youthful energies.
His own natural instincts would have, and in fact did, direct him toward competitive sports. At college, he set himself the goal of what’s called a “Cambridge University rugby blue,” and achieved it. Unfamiliar as the term may to Americans, it’s universally known in Britain, since it involves taking part in the annual match between Cambridge and Oxford.
The event could be compared to the American Rose Bowl game or to the annual match between Yale and Harvard.
“I became obsessed with the idea of winning a blue, which you can get if you play at Twickenham in the match that’s always scheduled for the second Tuesday in every December,” he said. “You play before something like 70,000 people.”
It was, in fact, rugby, albeit on a small scale, that brought Jonathan Cake to the U.S. for the first time, when he was just 18 and already an emerging star in the game.
“I had a great experience in Vail, Colo., “coaching a rugby team made up of men ranging from about my own age up to something like 35,” he recalled. “I was so obsessed with getting this blue that I went and trained in altitude in the Rockies, and it was fantastic summer training. I ended up coaching this mad bunch of redwood tree Coloradans who didn’t really know the rules of rugby but were fantastic athletes.”
If rugby introduced Cake to the United States, it remained for the Abbey’s “Medea” to bring him to New York, and he finds the city dazzling. One of his Cambridge friends, the director Sam Mendes, suggested he come over, but he had ideas of his own as he precisely how to do it.
“I kept putting it off because I wanted to come here when I was working, because that way you get hooked into meeting people and having experiences,” he said.
But coming to New York in a play has its negative aspects, too, which Cake readily, if jocosely, acknowledges.
“I tell you,” he said, “this Greek tragedy is really getting in the way of my social life. The city gets obscured. You go to bed at night thinking about the play, and you wake up in the morning thinking about the play. To a certain extent, you really could be anywhere. But, seriously, it’s been fantastic.”
The actor is well past his 100th Jason, and if the character still follows him home at night, it isn’t because Cake is still struggling to find the truth in him. He knows exactly who he is.
“Jason is a man whom I find intensely recognizable,” he said. “He’s a 30-something man who has had a wild and exciting adventure in his life before we encounter him. He’s had a grand passion with this exotic foreign woman, Medea, and is at a point in his life where two really important things are going on in him. One, a feeling that his will, his sheer life force, is enough to contrive the world for himself that he wants, just by willing it. He’s got to the point where he thinks he has that kind of power to influence things and people for his own ends.”
To make Jason’s second point, Cake relies on the controversial British novelist Martin Amis. ” I remember something that Amis described as ‘tramp dead,’ which is the idea that even the strongest, the wealthiest, the most set up people are only ever a couple of beats away from what Arthur Miller called ‘falling through.’ You know, it’s that idea that at any moment, without warning it’s all going to fall apart,” Cake said.
Cake regards it as a “very male sort of thing, this fear of sudden exposure, the fear of our life suddenly collapsing around you.”
The actor finds Jason’s arguments and his self-justification entirely clear. “We can argue as long as we like,’ he said, “but in the end it all comes down to the one sheer fact of breaking your lover’s heart, which is, as Medea demonstrates in the play, ungainsayable.”
To Cake, Jason wants security. “He says that of himself,” he said, “and he wants prosperity. He wants to shelter Medea and his children, who, as refugees, are in a parlous state. They’re very famous, glamorous refugees, but Jason and Medea have made high, high-profile enemies during their crazy Bonnie ad Clyde adventures, getting to where they are when the play starts.”
The actor sees Jason as “clearly a man running scared, genuinely fearful that something’s going to catch up with him that’s going to make the whole thing fall to pieces. He has deep wells of insecurity.”
Although Jonathan Cake calls upon such public figures as Amis and Miller to help explain his take on Jason, it’s probable that his own salesman father figures in the mix.
“My father, all his life, sold stuff,” Cake said. “He was a classic sort of ’40s, postwar, upwardly mobile, lower-middle-class kid or maybe upper-working-class kid who just tried to hawk stuff on the basis of personality — the whole eternal idea of the salesman, with a suitcase full of samples, and a more expensive suit than he could afford, and a big smile.”
Consciously or otherwise, the actor describes a sort of bridge linking Jason with Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman.”