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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Though this be madness there should be method in it

Hamlet – English Repertory Theatre @ Cockpit Theatre, until 15 March 2015 (tickets)

I would like to open this review by mentioning that Civilian Theatre does not see itself as one of those critics that takes a perverse pleasure in lacerating poor productions with a damning review; chuckling to oneself with each stab of the keyboard. In the four years of reviewing plays, Civilian Theatre has only really laid into two productions (Babel and Peter & Alice) and both were big B02J4494-210enough to make it unlikely that my chiding remarks would have any real impact on the sensitivities of those involved.

With smaller-scale, or up and coming, companies it usually preferable to take a more modulated tone; criticism can serve two purposes, on one hand a review is written so that a potential ticket buyer can draw something meaningful about a play whilst a theatre company may also use it to draw insight from what a person distanced from the production process took away from the evening.

So in a roundabout way, and with the previous two paragraphs forming a mea culpa for what is to follow, we reach Hamlet, usually by William Shakespeare but here pared-down to 90 minutes and subject to reworking by the English Repertory Theatre.

Now I have been a stalwart defender of the right to adapt Shakespeare in order to draw in new audiences or to cast fresh perspectives on the action. I loved both of Phyllidia Lloyd’s productions at the Donmar (Julius Caesar and Henry IV), and felt that cutting close to four hours from Henry IV Part I & Part II was entirely validated due to the way it thrillingly reinterpreting the relationship dynamics between the lead roles.

However it is a high risk approach and one has to be sure that every snip from the text is dramatically justified and lends to the clarity and purpose of the production. So in this version it is understandable that you would excise much of the political intrigue that swirls around Elsinore, cutting Fortinbras and Hamlet’s trip to England completely and narrowing the action to Hamlet’s coterie in order to fit it to the school setting.

What is less understandable is why you would then reallocate dialogue so that Horatio delivers Fortinbras’ final lines in a cod-Norwegian accent. It is a terribly misjudged comic coda for what is ostensibly a tragedy, and also acts as a strangely out-of-place addendum at odds with the key themes that have been drawn out in the cut-down text.

This is just one example of the confusion that mars a production that reeks of being cannily targeted at the school syllabus; the stripped down running time and the schoolyard setting feel  little more than a lure to entice the financially powerful student trip market. The use of a school as a framing device is never justified, and leads to far more questions than answers, so that in the end it becomes a performance that lacks narrative coherence.

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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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Grieg finds sublimity amidst the grief

The Events – Maria Room @ Young Vic, until 02 November 2013

A rather unusual thing happened to David Grieg whilst he was researching material for The Events (winner of a Fringe First, subject to rave reviews and currently playing at the Young Vic until November); following a feature interview in The Observer he was forced into the position of an issuing a statement via his blog to clarify that his latest work was both not a musical and not about Anders Breivik.

The Events by David Greig  An Actors Touring Company, Young Vic, Brageteatret & Schauspielhaus Wien Co-Production 9 October - 2 November 2013

It is a telling moment in the creation of this subtle and quietly devastating work that one of our leading contemporary playwrights felt the need to publically justify his work; it was a moment that was indicative of the undercurrent of sensationalism that surrounds mass public tragedies and which makes it so difficult to discuss them in anything other than the most binary of terms.

There is nothing in The Events that is suggestive of the Breivik shootings, however the themes are as much about that tragedy as it is about Dunblane, Columbine or Sandy Hook. As a play it is at once singular and all-encompassing; Grieg allows the audience to only see glimpses of the tragedy as the play instead looks at the deeper, more powerful questions that arise in the response to a tragic event.

The play is neither cast nor structured in a traditional way; perhaps rightly assuming that to tell the story through a linear narrative would lead to difficulties in ensuring each viewpoint was treated with equal weight, Grieg has chosen to refract a number of positions through his cast of two, and the community choir.

The result is an audience that remains distanced from the emotional impact of the action; an alienating technique that enables the play to take the form of a Socratic dialogue between the two actors. This is developed further in brief, direct interventions with the community choir, who often resemble a Greek chorus providing commentary on the action.

Claire (Neve McIntosh) is ATC / The Events, 2013the community’s priest who set up the choir that was the focal point of the events, and who acts as a mirror to the audience in looking for answers and explanations for the Boy’s actions. Rudi Dharmalingham plays the Boy – always nameless – and all the other characters in the play.

Claire is on a redemptive quest to find understanding in the Boy’s actions in the belief that doing so will liberate her from a perceived survivor’s guilt. The audience follows her through brief, fragmentary scenes, as Claire tries to gain answers that will provide some form of justification for the events rather than them appearing a senseless act of brutality from which survival was little more than pure luck.

However Claire’s crisis of faith (in both the secular and religious world) helps to shape the deeper narrative, which is a dialogue that sets out the precariousness of modern liberalism when it comes under an extreme and sustained attack.  As a lesbian priest with partner and penchant for homemade bread, Claire may be something of a liberal caricature but in her belief and values Claire is reflective of the country that many of the university-educated, metropolitan middle-class assumes Britain to be.

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