Friday 25 July 2014

Theatre review: Medea

Among the many current discussions about jobs and representation for women on stage, one question that often comes up is what constitutes a "strong female role." I would have thought it obviously meant "a strong role, but for a woman," but if Hollywood thinks it means a woman who punches people, others seem to confuse strong roles with positive ones. But the title role in Euripides' Medea is undoubtedly a strong role, while far from anyone's idea of a heroine; and Helen McCrory doesn't make the mistake of trying to make her one as she takes it on. Medea helped Jason steal the golden fleece from her family, and they married and fled to Corinth. Some years later, their fortunes faded, Jason (Danny Sapani) leaves Medea and their two sons to marry Kreusa (Clemmie Sveaas,) the daughter of King Kreon (Martin Turner.)

Tricking Athenian King Aegeus (Dominic Rowan) into offering her sanctuary without realising what she's planning, Medea sets in motion a plan to horribly murder Kreusa and Kreon; but what she's most famous for is the revenge she plans on Jason, by robbing him of his - and her own - children.

Ben Power's adaptation makes more than I've noticed before of Medea's backstory - the golden fleece story sees her murder and chop to pieces her own brother just to provide a distraction. The National's production never lets you forget what she did just to get Jason, so losing him was never going to end well. McCrory plays her not as a woman who has a moment of madness, but as a woman whose madness is what makes her who she is, the moments of doubt about slaughtering her children being the brief flashes of sanity.

The setting is roughly modern - to take her revenge McCrory changes into a flowing, rather '80s white pantsuit that already seems to have become the stuff of legend on Twitter. This might make the references to Medea's magic powers incongruous, but Carrie Cracknell's production gives them a topicality by focusing on the Corinthians' fear of Medea's foreignness. Tom Scutt's set evokes this wildness at the edge of the seemingly civilised, the house a mansion with peeling paint on the walls, and the garden turning into dark forest just behind the children's swings. The jerky movements of the Chorus of local women, choreographed by Lucy Guerin to ominous music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, adds to this horror movie feel.

I wasn't entirely convinced though by the way this Chorus is presented: As the play goes on it becomes increasingly suggested that they're a figment of Medea's mind or her magic, but right at the end Jason speaks to them directly. I felt like I'd rather Cracknell had given their lines here to Michaela Coel as the Nurse, leaving the Chorus' existence a bit more in question, and avoiding the thorny issue of why, if they're real women who are present in the house, they did nothing to stop the murders. I also didn't think we got enough to suggest why Toby Wharton as Jason's attendant would take Medea's side after the murder of Kreusa, and warn her to flee. But a few minor quibbles aside this is the strongest take on Euripides' most notorious antiheroine I've seen for a long time.

Medea by Euripides in a version by Ben Power is booking in repertory until the 4th of September at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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