Where are your god’s now?

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 MEDEA_2982115bwhen 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.

Dominic Rowan as AegusOver 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.

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Doing time with Birdland

Birdland – Royal Court Theatre, until 31 May 2014

There are few playwrights whose output is as prodigious as Simon Stephens; since 2010 he is credited against 15 works either as writer or adapter. He has built a fertile partnership with Katie Mitchell leading to a new translation of The Cherry Orchard arriving at the Young Vic in the autumn and, like Mitchell, he is highly feted abroad; working with Patrice Chéreau and Estonia’s Theatre NO99 on audience-challenging work that utilise multiple levels of abstraction and woozy dreamscapes to threaten the entire disintegration of narrative. However he is proved himself equally adept at producing crowd-pleasing adaptations and enjoyed great success with Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–time and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Andrew Scott in Birdland - Royal CourtAround Stephens’ swirls this air of the unknown, which makes any new work by him an enticing proposition. However this inability to pigeon-hole him has also led to him becoming one of Britain’s most divisive playwrights and Birdland is no exception to this.

What’s On Stage has pulled together how it has split the major newspapers, the blogging world has been generally united in criticism and it has been left to the always insightful Matt Trueman to attempt a passionate and cogent defence of the play.

Having been intrigued by Three Kingdoms and its radical Lynchian take on cross-border crime drama – possibly the only bright spot of the otherwise dire attempt to produce a theatrical ‘cultural Olympiad’ – Civilian Theatre has always been prepared to give Stephens a degree of slack. However it is troubling that flaws evident in Three Kingdoms crop up again in Birdland.

Three Kingdoms portrayal of female characters and sexual violence came very close to glorification rather than dispassionate reportage and whilst the work of multiple hands in the authorship of the piece made it hard to assign responsibility, it is depressing to see that three years later Stephens’ female characters remain ciphers for his fascination with charismatic men.

His work also remains far too long, Three Kingdoms was a punishing three hours whilst Birdland clocks in at an interval-less 110 minutes. It is slickly directed by Carrie Cracknall and the plot bounces along but as Andrew Scott’s rockstar Paul ends up in yet another European city, you do wonder if they could have shortened this endless tour by just a little.

It is down to the magnetic and compelling performance by Andrew Scott that the evening did not feel even longer. Whilst many of the audience may be drawn to this by his work in Sherlock (and one can see echoes of Moriarty in Scott’s dangerously charismatic Paul), he is no novice to the stage and took the lead in the (unfortunately woeful) Emperor and Galilean at the National. The snippet of Angels in America, shown as part of the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, also provided a chance to see an unusually intelligent and sensitive actor at work.

He turns Paul, on the surface a rather two-dimensional rockstar damaged by the sudden accumulation of wealth and fame, into a living creation. Scott finds a kernel of humanity within Paul’s increasingly disaffected personality; that part of his soul that led him to create the music that first brought him to people’s attention and which he is in the systematic process of destroying.

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Read…people in defence of Birdland

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Read…people criticising Birdland

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Clarity of thought amidst the blurred lines

Blurred Lines – The Shed, National Theatre until 22 February

Watching Blurred Lines, Nick Payne’s latest play created in close collaboration with director, Carrie Cracknell and the eight members of the all-female cast, is not a particularly comfortable experience for a male reviewer. This is not because it consists of seventy minutes of radicalised polemic damning all men to one of Dante’s more unpleasant circles of hell but rather because it does the reverse; performances are restrained, arguments are calm and reasonable, but clearly lying underneath the surface is an anger. An anger one suspects is born out both of individual experience and universal frustration.

It is primarily directed at rather oblique targets; the unthinking gender stereotyping that is ingrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded Blurred Lines, The Shed by the relentlessly battery of consumer culture.

To describe the production as a play is not quite accurate, as it suggests a more cohesive piece that has a narrative thread running through it. What is presented is more a series of case studies – template models of the gender imbalances women face on a daily basis. This approach is perhaps not surprising, in part because it is based on Kat Banyard’s book, The Equality Illusion, and also because the purpose is to present the universal alongside the individual.

If this all sounds a little dry then the collaborative feel of the work, performed by an excellent cast, give the scenes the relaxed feel of a community workshop rather than the cold air of a lecture theatre. The bite-size chunks also suit the modern world’s preferred way of digesting information; in the internet age grand narratives are out and bullet-point lists are in. If you don’t engage with one scene – and not all of them work perfectly – then don’t worry as another will be along in a moment.

Blurred Lines is bookended with two stand-out scenes. Nick Payne, as he has demonstrated in previous work, has a poet’s ear for finding something musical in everyday language. This is showcased in the first scene, which reminds of the opening to London Road, itself a piece of verbatim theatre, and that demonstrates that real speech, taken out of context, can contain a tremendous power and vitality.

The scene sets the play’s direction with a wonderfully observed perspective of what being a woman means to other people. The cast come together as one voice with many mouths to present the audience with a series of tart one-liners of how women are portrayed. In the scene women are broken down to nameless, definable adjectives; when they are deemed worthy of being given more status it is directly through their relationship to a male. They become ‘wife of…’, ‘mother of…’ and through this their lives are given an implicit meaning.

The round starts with common descriptions that soon descend to absurdity and anger with the relentless repetition and the fall-back to common descriptors. Rose West’s ‘character face’ repeats again and again, and any initial amusement fades as the audience understands that it is another example of the malleability of the English language that has learnt to hide overt misogyny behind a second, socially acceptable double-speak.

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