Medea – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 04 September (Tickets)
One of the most shocking things about this production of Euripides’ Medea is the discovery that it’s the first time that the National Theatre has staged it in its 50 year history; a startling omission, and all the more appalling when you consider the legion of fine female actors that have graced the stage in that time.
When you consider the paucity of roles for women in pre-20th century playwriting then to ignore one of the great tragedies is astonishing. Medea, more than many of the surviving plays of ancient Greece, has retained its relevance to the modern era as it can rely as much on an understanding of human psychology as it does on the intervention of the Gods.
That it was never picked by the National to ‘inspire debate’, if for no other reason, during the height of the fight for gender equality; it seems an obvious candidate, although a firm hand is needed to steer Medea away from a conspicuously Congreve-inspired ‘…hell a fury like a woman scorned’ and closer to Shakespeare Lear who saw himself as ‘...More sinn’d against than sinning’.
It is a crucial distinction; it is difficult to separate Medea’s anger at Jason’s actions from her anger at her own impotence, but it is essential to make this seperation if Medea is going to be humanised as a tragic figure in her own right. It is like Lear in the storm; we may not fully believe in his argument or in his call for the gods to execute justice on his behalf but we have to believe that his raging is at least partially justified.
Carrie Cracknell clearly believes it would have relevance in the past having seemingly set the play in the 1970s; the period was a boom-time for psychoanalysis and self-discovery, and Helen McCrory’s Medea approach and understanding to her problems is often as someone who has spent time assessing themselves on the couch. The era is reinforced by Tom Scutt’s beautiful design and immediately recognisable period furniture. The plate glass window and minimal lines could come as easily from a Mediterranean villa as they could from a southern Californian hillside.
Over 2014 Cracknell has directed three plays and, along with the A Doll’s House at the Young Vic in 2012, there are clearly thematic links between them. She seems fascinated in the fragility of the individual and particularly those who deliberately set themselves against the grain. A Doll’s House, Birdland and Medea all contain protagonists who must bear the weight of societal pressure to conform; these people are not, in themselves, naturally heroic but find that they cannot bring themselves to act in any other way.
The third play – her collaborative effort with Nick Payne – was Blurred Lines highlighted another theme central to her work; an interest in women and the position they are held in by wider society. Blurred Lines was a painfully powerful expression of real lives, a melange of stories, thoughts and opinions that traversed the spectrum from bleak and melancholy to humorous and life-affirming. A Doll’s House is an established genre-defining work and Medea, well for Medea to work it needs to show the internal complexity that can push a woman to commit what continues to be one of society’s most horrifying taboos.
Helen McCrory is an actress more than capable of producing the subtleties necessary for the role. At 5’4 and with a face that has a pixyish quality McCroy is perhaps not the Medea of the imagination – all strident, astringent anger and physically domineering as the fury whips up around her – and against Danny Sapani’s burly Jason it is apparent that she is never going to go toe-to-toe with him.
However this is a Medea that can flip between different states at a moment’s notice; we hear her before we see her; her cries off-scream as she discovers Jason is to enter a political astute marriage with the daughter of Creon, only to emerge in dungarees, calmly brushing her teeth, her rage clearly suppressed.
We sense the Medea we are watching, particularly in her flirtatiously sensual exchange with Dominic Rowan’s Aegeus, is one who has been an astute political operator in the past and is fully aware of how to bend a man around her fingers. It is only as time has progressed that the mask has started to slip, and she becomes aware to the extent that she has been humoured rather than accepted as an equal. Her powers have ultimately come to nought, she has slaughtered her brother and fled across the Mediterranean only to be cast aside by Jason for a better match.
The scene with Aegeus carries an erotic tension that is being pushed by McCrory’s Medea but Rowan’s Aegeus is a slippery fish who is aware that there is only so much that can be promised. There is a charge in Medea’s promise that Aegeus will be with child that one cannot but help think of what sits under the surface of such a remark. Aegeus in turn promises nothing but safe passage if Medea should arrive in Athens.
Medea’s frustrations, and rage, grow as the play continues until eventually she finds herself subsumed by them. Given her eventual action it is hard to imagine a situation where the audience would be on her side but McCrory’s performance is one of a wounded animal caught in a trap; it can sense the danger that is to come and knows that any action will be a bad action, but equally no action will lead to death.
Jan Kott noted that it is this choice between two opposing values that captures the essence of tragedy. Clearly the play is tragic in the sense of death and the impact on Jason of Medea’s action, but the tragedy we take with us is the annihilation of Medea. She doesn’t suffer in the same way as Oedipus, her tragedy is not one of destiny, and is closer to Antigone’s choice between the human and the divine. In the end her choice must involve the destruction of everything she has left and the play’s final image leaves us with a very literal sense of Medea weighed down by her guilt.
There are some problems with the play. Ben Power’s translation is a solid attempt to produce an updated text that maintains faith in the original, and the removal of the deus ex machina is understandable within the context and results in a stronger ending. However the resulting update does lose some of the original’s poetics – particularly in the lines given to what would have been the Messengers/Guards narrating the off-stage action. That being said it ends with a wonderful stark and brutal final line that I am sure Euripides would have been happy writing, as the Nurse closes proceedings with ‘…Silence. Then darkness’.
There has also been some criticism of the Chorus’s interpretative dances and they never really work within a fairly conventional production, and don’t integrate into the main action; we don’t expect them to engage in the proceedings but they do appear rather otherworldly within the setting. It is a problem that is a challenge for any modern interpretations of Greek drama and Cracknell hasn’t come closer to solving this conundrum.
However this play belongs to McCrory, and her performance is what you take away. We feel that we leave the National a little bit closer to solving the riddle of Medea. We sense her frustration at her growing exclusion from the political sphere and her growing terror at being bullied and backed into a corner. Yet McCrory also gives us the self-pity and self-absorption that could lead a person to commit such an unconscionable act. In the end we recognise that Medea’s final action is to rip her future out of the hands of others; out of Creon’s, out of Jason’s and out of the Gods. She takes control of the last thing it is within her power to control, and in doing so destroys herself utterly. It is a terrifying if exhilarating ending, signed off with that wonderful ‘Silence. Then darkness’.
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