Friday 2 October 2015

Theatre review: Medea (Almeida Theatre)

Rupert Goold concludes his hit Greek season at the Almeida by directing by far the most frequently produced of the three tragedies (the end of this run will clash with the Gate's take on it,) Euripides' Medea. For me this production has a similar effect to Simon Russell Beale graduating from Edgar to King Lear last year: The first professional role I ever saw Kate Fleetwood in was as part of the chorus to Fiona Shaw's Medea, and now it's her turn at the titular role, in one of her comparatively rare collaborations with her husband. As with Robert Icke's take on the Oresteia, Rachel Cusk's adaptation of the story of the woman who takes brutal revenge when her husband leaves her is a pretty broad re-write of the original; and while Goold's production and his cast's performances are excellent, I'm a bit less sure about how well the story changes work.

Apparently Cusk is best known for novels and memoirs that delve into her own failed marriage, and essentially her approach is to do the same thing here: Fleetwood's Medea is a writer whose actor husband Jason (Justin Salinger) has left her for a younger woman.

Rattling around the large house she'll soon have to sell off, she feels like she's had her identity as anything other than mother to her sons (Guillermo Bedward and Louis Sayers tonight, alternating with Lukas Rolfe, Sam Smith, Xavier Moras Spencer and Joseph West) taken away from her. Over the course of the 90 minutes, she is visited by various characters whose only purpose seems to be to belittle her: From the Nurse (Amanda Boxer) who opens the show by essentially telling her she's brought it all on herself by being too uppity for her own good, to her love rival's father Creon (Andy de la Tour,) here an influential figure in publishing who spitefully cuts off Medea's source of income.

And this is where my problems with Cusk's adaptation begin: Where Icke made the Oresteia's leading lady more sympathetic by including a pretty vital story point that Aeschylus didn't dramatise, Cusk tries to do the same thing by entirely wiping out Medea's backstory, reducing her to a one-dimensional victim. Ironically, even though Euripides' version of the character is, from the start, a feral creature with a history of disemboweling family members for the lulz, she usually comes across a lot better than she does here. Perhaps if I hadn't known anything about the writer beforehand I might not have minded so much, because there's a kind of narcissism about this Medea-as-Cusk: Everything that happens in the story is someone else's fault, and the climax sees Medea take her revenge through the power of sheer writing talent*.

Because this Medea doesn't actually do the one thing the character is most famous for. It means that this one time I can go along with Goold's tendency to proclaim his work controversial before anyone's even seen it, but it is a bit like staging an Oedipus with no strong feelings about his parents. The alternative ending we're given is a rather rushed and muddled one, although delivered with great style by Charlotte Randle as a hermaphrodite deity (who may have only just avoided a nasty accident tonight, when she tripped over her costume right by the pit that forms the centrepiece of the set.)

And this is the production all over really: It looks stunning, with Ian MacNeil's split-level set hiding an apocalyptic twist when things start to get nasty, and Holly Waddington's modern-dress costumes also gradually turning into something more classical for the climax. Goold brings his usual stylish edge, aided by Scott Ambler's eerie choreography for the Chorus of insufferable Hampstead mums and Adam Cork's music (although the grungy cover of "...Baby One More Time" is a rare misstep - that particular track is overused, and makes little sense here when there's no suggestion of domestic abuse elsewhere in the adaptation.) And the acting is strong, led by Fleetwood's towering central performance of pure rage. But... she could have been given so much more than just rage to deal with. It's a stunning production but one that in many ways masks the problems with the adaptation; sitting back and thinking about it afterwards exposes how much of the original's message has been taken away, and how little has replaced it.

And no, I have no idea why there's a Brazilian cleaning lady in the story either.

Medea by Euripides in a version by Rachel Cusk is booking until the 14th of November at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

*SPOILER ALERT: If I interpreted this correctly, she writes an autobiographical TV series so cutting and humiliating that her kids enter into a suicide pact? ....Bokay then.

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