Among the many horror stories told by the Greek tragedians, Euripides’ Medea is often cited as one of the most horrifying: the mother who kills her children, going against her nature to exact the ultimate justice on her erstwhile husband, Jason (a compelling Danny Sapani). “They are the sun that lights his world /So I will plunge him into darkness.” Intimate, intense and visceral, with a good balance of mortal lust and divine influence, underpinned by a powerhouse central performance from Helen McCrory, Ben Power’s new version of Medea makes for a potent evening of ancient drama with sharp psychological observation, dark humour, and plenty of bite.
Carrie Cracknell’s production for the National Theatre draws Medea’s world unsettlingly close to our own, bringing Euripides’ most terrible of family tragedies to a new level of domestic intimacy in an emphatically contemporary setting. As we enter, her little sons are already playing with toys in front of the TV, lying on the floor in sleeping bags in an instantly familiar scene, their faces lit by the glow of cartoons. One boy sneaks upstairs to play a few illicit notes on the piano, starting the tense, mournful soundtrack by Will Gregory & Alison Goldfrapp, and suddenly the play is in action. With an urgent, energetic pace, the plot moves quickly throughout, the tension ratcheting up as Medea’s position as a foreigner, barbarian, witch and cast-off wife in Corinth becomes ever more impossible, and her determination to regain her honour ever more frightening.
Helen McCrory, snarling and scheming with real vindictiveness, yet cosseting with seductive charm whenever required, brings one of Greek tragedy’s most terrible murderers to brilliant life. McCrory gives a detailed psychological portrait of Medea which touches expertly on her intelligence, her arrogance, her manipulative prowess and her violence, and traces the gradual unravelling of her psyche with care, energy and skill. In Cracknell’s reading, Medea’s final, exultant farewell to Jason (which in Euripides she delivers from a dragon-borne chariot thoughtfully sent by the Sun God, her ancestor) is the final flourish of a comprehensive psychotic delusion, as she staggers off into the misty woods, bearing her sons’ bodies in bloodstained sleeping bags on her shoulders, muttering about the gods. We feel her pain most intensely, along with her dreadful vindication.
Tom Scutt’s wonderful design unites the contemporary setting with its classical roots, using a split stage which nevertheless recalls an ancient palace in overall outline. The upper storey shows Jason’s second wedding happening noiselessly behind glass, as if an animated pediment sculpture on a classical temple. Skilful lighting by Lucy Carter underscores the constant changes of mood as Medea alternately wheedles and strikes at her victims. The Chorus sing and dance beautifully; Lucy Guerin’s choreography is bold and atmospheric, full of quivering and twitching, though for me it doesn’t always suit the sense of every ode. The rather sumptuous music can also overwhelm at times.
As I left, I noticed the Southbank Centre are currently holding a Festival of Love. After an evening with Medea, her obsessive passions and her terrible commitment, that festival seemed suddenly rather scary. All would-be Jasons should definitely take note.
Click here to read my full review for the London Theatre Guide.