Friday, 23 November 2012

Theatre review: Medea

New adaptations of Greek tragedy often take a modernising approach to the play, but Mike Bartlett's version of Euripides' Medea for Headlong goes further than most: Nicknamed the "IKEA Medea" it feels less like an adaptation of Euripides' work, more like Bartlett has started afresh with the mythology and written a whole new play based on the story, bringing Medea and Jason to suburban England. Ruari Murchison's set is the front of a row of identical-looking houses, often pulling back to reveal the interior of Medea's two-up two-down home. Medea and Jason divorced nine months ago after he ran off with the landlord's daughter. Shortly afterwards she had a breakdown, and when we join them on the eve of Jason's second marriage, she is still more or less locking herself away in the house.

Rachael Stirling's scarlet-haired, husky-voiced Medea is a force of nature, spouting fury, sarcasm or despair according to her changing moods. The chorus of women is replaced by a neighbour (Lu Corfield) and work colleague (Amelia Lowdell) who have been keeping an eye on Medea and taking her son Tom (who hasn't spoken since the divorce) to school, and who have a somewhat competitive relationship over which of them is a better friend to the depressed woman. With the landlord wanting Medea to move out after she threatened his daughter, a visit from ex-husband Jason (Adam Levy) only tips Medea further into madness. I've always liked Euripides best of the ancient Greek playwrights largely because he's the first to seem to have some understanding of human beings in drama as something other than the gods' chess pieces, and the psychological study of Medea transfers well to a modern-day context as a look at a woman whose depression (a theme Headlong seem to be particularly interested in this season what with The Effect) is more dangerous than people realise.

The modernisation isn't 100% successful though. Despite the occasional lull in energy the production is going along pretty strongly until the two great murderous acts at the end, where the crushingly "normal" setting, until then devastating in its familiarity, starts to feel at odds with the extremes of the genre. Medea's attack on Jason's new wife with a poisoned wedding dress is treated as some kind of witchcraft, which (apart from an earlier scene of elaborate curses which doesn't come across as if it should be taken literally) doesn't fit in with the rest of the production. Bartlett directs his own script, and perhaps a different perspective might have brought more of the feel of the supernatural lurking beneath the suburban earlier; or, alternatively, kept the tone as it is and clarified the workings of the poisoned dress in modern-day terms. Her big final crime, revealed by another trick from Murchison's set, was also fudged in my opinion (it certainly got no reaction tonight from an audience who'd gasped at the merest suggestion of it earlier) and the decision not to have the other characters react to it seems an odd one.

A roaringly powerful central performance from Stirling (though I should point out Phill said he found she spoke too quickly, an accusation I didn't get at all) is the highlight of this Medea but although much of it works very well, much also niggles.

Medea by Euripides in a version by Mike Bartlett is booking until the 24th of November at Richmond Theatre; then continuing on tour to Exeter.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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