Kramer vs Kramer for the ancient Greek generation

Medea – Almeida Theatre, until 14 November 2015 (tickets)

Under Rupert Goold’s unusually restrained direction, the Almeida Greeks season closes with Rachel Cusk’s brutally open updating of perhaps the most intriguingly ambiguous of ancient tragedies, Medea. It is a production teetering on the edge of brilliance and one that leaves no doubt that there are few stage actors who can match Kate Fleetwood’s ability to humanise the most complex of characters.

Watching Medea, and reflecting on Oresteia and Bakkhai, the carefully chosen nature of the three plays becomes apparent. In the ancient world, the personal, political and religious were fundamentally intertwined but the strength of Goold’s season has been to disentangle these threads so as to give them a clearer contemporary relevance. The season opened with a stunning reinvention of Oresteia – a political tragedy in so much as it was a tragedy of events, where a forced decision leads to an endless echo chamber of destruction. This was followed by Bakkhai, where tragedy is orchestrated by a capricious and vengeful god.

Medea is a problematic play because for all its greatness, it has an almost unresolvable contradiction at its core – as much as we can see Medea as a wronged figure, the act of filicide can never be seen as justifiable to a modern audience. This was precisely where last year’s version with Helen McCrory at the National, based on a Ben Power translation, became unstuck as it updated the setting without finding a way to modernise the plot.

0332798d-e0e7-41b1-af41-9414fbd8949b-680x365_cTo get around this problem Cusk has substantially reworked the play to the extent that a person could watch this production and not realise that it is taken from an ancient Greek play. Purists may decry the lack of poetry and question whether this is can truly be called Euripides’ play given the narrative reworking that takes place. This should be countered by the fact that it arrives with the note that it is a new version by Rachel Cusk, and that the myths have always been adapted to meet the needs of the time.

Where Goold and Cusk succeed is to entirely reimagine the play. It is not a tragedy brought about by the divine, or by individuals caught up in grand events. It is a tragedy found in the domesticity of everyday life. Cusk’s interpretation thrusts the play into the modern world. The time of gods has passed and instead we live in a world of men (and the use of the word ‘men’ is entirely intentional).

Medea has become a domestic tragedy about family breakdown. It is a snarling, vituperative text that sets Jason against Medea, with the children a battleground and reputations as weapons. Anger courses through the play, and confrontations between the two are ferocious all-out assaults that have a dangerous, spiteful venom rarely captured on the stage.

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Thrills and chills enough to satisfy the most capricious of gods

Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (ticketsthere are still a handful of remaining)Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai2 Photo credit Marc Brenner

The first notable thing about ‘Bakkhai’, Anne Carson’s new translation of Euripides ancient tragedy, is the missing definite article from the play’s title. Commonly known as ‘The Bacchae’ the removal of ‘the’ feels in itself a significant act in keeping with the indeterminate nature of the play’s leading character, Dionysos.

We use ‘the’ when the person taking in the information will know exactly to what we will refer. Yet in a Thebes that has been brought under the spell of a mysterious interloper nothing is quite as it seems. Dionysos may appear as man or, as seen by Pentheus a ‘bull leading me in procession [with] horns growing out of your head’,  entranced ‘menead[s] sitting happily  working at little tasks’ are also capable of pulling ‘a calf to pieces as it bellowed alive in her bare hands’. Thebes itself is lit by two suns/sons; one for those who see and one those who do not.  In this world how can we be sure enough of what we know for anything to feel definite.

Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel face off in Bakkhai Almeida Theatre Photo credit Marc BrennerAnne Carson’s decision is just one small part of a superb translation. It follows her exceptional reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone for Ivo Van Hove. In all the plaudits heading for Ben Whishaw’s central performance and Orlando Gough’s magnificent composition for the Chorus, Carson’s contribution should not be underestimated. If her translation of Antigone stripped backed much of the poetic, Bakkhai feels more of a hybrid. If it uses a simplified language that allows a naturalness of speech within Thebes that is much in keeping with the modern world – Pentheus’ order to ‘go to Teiresias’ little outpost and bulldoze it’ could come from any age – then upon Mt Cithaeron the language changes in order to retain the sense of ancient rites and rituals.

It feels that this approach to the writing is aligned with James McDonald’s vision of the play. Transformation seems to be at the heart of McDonald’s approach. Language transforms depending on place.

The arrival of this mysterious stranger is the catalyst for a series of transformations. Pentheus and Dionysos are both sons of Thebes but equally they are two halves of one person. Dionysos is the explosion of all that Pentheus has repressed, in himself and in the society he governs. We feel the yearning of the populace when the shepherd, despite terror at what he has witnessed, recounts how Dionysos ‘gave the gift of wine to men: why, without wine we’ve no freedom from pain. Without wine there’s no sex. Without sex life isn’t worth living’. This is both act of narration and reproach for Pentheus.

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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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