Review – Medea at the National Theatre

Other interpretations: Ian FosterPoly GannibaBillington on Medea’s contradictions. Coveney is insightful and creates impressive sentences like ‘an Attic architectural scale with the bland anomie of a transient city existence’.

Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

The children, whom we know will die, lie on the vast stage in sleeping bags and watching TV. The ending is written into the beginning. Around them are the fixtures of a 70s council house: brown patterned carpet, peeling walls, a sense of long settled dust.

A second level is set out for a wedding. There is a wedding cake, chairs and a piano. These are all behind glass and they look old and dusty, as if set out many years ago, as if on display in a museum. And then a dark, unlit forest underneath the wedding scene stretches downstage and spills out into the living room.

The set is as if for a ghost story, a Doctor Who episode, a modern, macabre take on gothic. Tom Scutt’s design is as absorbing and detailed as the one he invented for Mr Burns.

The Nurse delivers the proem. Her words are so full of anger and her voice is shaking as she tells us where we are, what’s happening and what will happen. Gooseflesh prickles on my arms throughout.

Every character’s story has been told over and over in many different ways by many different authors. Jason was sent to look for a Golden Fleece. He gathered a crew of the ancient world’s greatest men and set sail for Colchis. Aeetes was king, he owned the fleece. He set Jason 3 impossible tasks. The gods made Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, fall in love with Jason. Would she betray her father and help Jason? Or let him die? She chose to help him, she killed her brother and made Jason promise to marry her.

But this is not where we are. We are elsewhere and later. Jason and Medea had two sons, the Nurse tells us. They moved to Corinth. Medea was seen as a foreigner, never accepted by Corinth’s King Creon. Jason divorced Medea and is set to marry Creon’s daughter. For this insult Medea wants him to suffer.

Carrie Cracknell’s vision is far from the playful, experimental Idomeneus at the Gate, another classical text on stage. This Medea is traditional in many ways, not allowing itself to break free from the constraints of Greek tragedy: the presence of the chorus, monologue-heavy text, alien values systems. But a text as multivalent as Euripides’, in a translation as fluid and natural as Ben Power’s, gives Helen McCrory the chance to act. And act and act and act. She acts with quivering legs and evil eyes, with a low, rasping monotony in her evil voice. At the beginning the evil is almost comically two dimensional, and people in the audience laugh. She’s removed from anything real or recognisable. A witch, a descendant of the sun god, a devotee of Hecate, handmaiden of Persephone. None of this is real. But she gets into domestic spats with her divorcee husband that are like any fight any parent’s ever had: childish, cruel, ignorant of the children cowering in the background. Half of this is a divorce drama, half is otherworldly, dark, dangerous and mythic.

McCrory is unerringly precise in her movements and expressions and tone of voice. Her pitch only breaks from low and gravelly to tenderness at the end, as she sits on the sofa with her sleeping children, moments before she cuts them open. “Let your mother kiss you” she insists as one of the sons pulls away from her embrace. Stage lights reveal from within the gossamer folds of a silken robe the outline of her thin and frail body. She upbraids her hesitation: “you weak woman, throw off your sex.” Only by not being a woman can she be cruel and powerful.

Far, far from one of the greatest heroes there’s ever been, far from the man who led the Argonauts against all sense and all hope, who carried the goddess Hera across a raging river, who counted Hercules among his friends, who yoked fire-breathing oxen and slew a dragon, far from the Argonautic Jason, this one’s got a bit fat. He’s middle-aged and chunky, he drinks whisky and has grey hairs in his beard. And Danny Sapani is not able to match Helen McCrory’s sheer, wild intensity. Maybe no one can.

Medea has killed anyone she could turn to. She’s desperate. She is also clever, manipulative and controlling. She doesn’t just control others, but herself as well – she controls her emotions enough to be able to justify slicing her sons’ throats. She is always seen as the exotic, frightening other and she is white. Jason, the hero and the good man, is black. Except neither of their characters are so plainly black and white.

What are Greek choruses for a modern audience? A collective that speaks with one voice, that can be anywhere at any time. Confidants, but impartial. They can be anything. In Medea they are the women of Corinth. In this Medea they are the guests at Jason’s and Kreusa’s wedding. They are dancers and singers. But as Medea rages they twitch, flinch and spasm in faded, floral bridesmaid dresses. Warped and jolting music accompanies their orgiastic movements. It is like a visual representation of a stuck record. Goldfrapp’s creeping melodies are cut short, bastardised into abrupt sounds. Choruses are completely elastic, they can be and do whatever the director wants. Here they reflect the mental turmoil of Medea in a wild dance of ‘otherness’. Later one of them speaks into a reverb-heavy mic as music plays and the rest twitch. It sounds like a Nick Cave song – brooding, ominous.

Literature’s different Medeas are not easy to reconcile. Her many and various representations make her difficult to understand. But the uniting strand is that Medea is a rare example of a woman who is given literary prominence. She always merits deep, psychological analysis among the works of literature’s greats, works which were so wholly devoted to and written by men.

Euripides has Medea fly away in the chariot of the sun god Helios. Cracknell has her lift her sons’ blood soaked sleeping bags, now body bags, onto her shoulders and stagger snivelling and triumphant into the sun that shines on her face. The chorus breaks into full voice, fulfilling its role as chorus. Medea fulfils her destiny. She is the best or the worst of women; she has either broken free of her subservient role in a patriarchal society or ensured that, because of her evil, women will always have to be subservient to men. “How can there ever be any ending other than this?” The Nurse asks, “First silence; then darkness.”


Timothy Bano




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