Medea, National Theatre (Olivier), London – review

Its cast of characters may include kings and heroes, but in Tom Scutt’s design Medea looks comparatively low-rent, like a 1980s eastern European presidential palace: recently built but already falling apart, not unlike its anti-heroine’s marriage. Then, stretching away beyond the back half-wall, is a more ancient, dark, brooding grove, the sort of place where sacrifices might be made.

Most actresses in the title role exhibit a fiery incandescence, as Medea resolves to revenge herself on husband Jason for his desertion of her by murdering first his new wife, then their own sons. Helen McCrory conjures up more a spirit of savage drought, as if she has run out of hope and with it tolerance. Danny Sapani as Jason, and Martin Turner as his new father-in-law Kreon spout specious and self-serving rationalisations that instantly vanish in Medea’s arid sands. This desiccation is alternately impressive and attenuating: it makes for a coherent psychological portrait (we see Medea show an instant of remorse and whimperingly question her own resolve, only to rebut herself in a flat mutter), but it also lessens the dynamism and the tension of inexorability when she does act.

Carrie Cracknell sets great store as a director by movement and dance, so the choric sequences of a Greek drama are a gift to her. However, it is difficult to see what the jerky dancing of the chorus against the Goldfrapp duo’s score symbolises or brings to the picture. Cracknell does, though, continue the interrogation of images of femaleness conducted in her last National Theatre production Blurred Lines.

Euripides (rendered here in a fairly neutral version by Ben Power) regularly questioned both civic values and deference to the whims of the gods, making him a keen subversive in 5th-century BCE Athenian terms; in the character of Medea he also dismantles the traditional “womanly virtues” of passivity, nurturing and the like. In this respect it would actually have been more daring to preserve the original deus ex machina ending in which Medea is carried away from the bloody scene by an airborne chariot of the gods, rather than to modernise it by making her remarks about redemption indicative of a psychotic break as she stands there with her sons in body bags. Imagine how shocking it would be for the implacable, supposedly wicked woman to get away with multiple murder, and that with divine blessing.

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