If you have an interest in Greek tragedy (and I admit that I certainly do) then London’s theatres will have a lot to offer in the coming months. With Kristen Scott Thomas playing Sophocles’ Electra this autumn, and Juliet Binoche taking on the role of Sophocles’ Antigone in the spring of 2015, there’s much to look forward to. Leading the way, though, is the National Theatre’s new production of Euripides’ Medea and if comparisons are to be made in the months ahead (and let’s face it, tragedy in ancient Athens was a competitive business) then it, and Helen McCrory’s performance, certainly sets the bar high.
Mary Beard has pointed out in a review for the TLS (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1440601.ece) that Ben Power’s text is ‘a version’ of the play as much as a translation, and that opens up some significant differences when it comes to its message and impact. All the same, this is a bruising, emotionally intense 90 minutes of theatre that explores the darker regions of peoples’ emotional and psychological terrain and comes up with shocking conclusions as to what they may be capable of if they perceive circumstances to be dire enough.
As the Nurse’s opening speech tells us, Medea’s love for Jason was itself the spur for some terrible crimes in his pursuit of the Golden Fleece. If their marriage lent those acts of treason and murder a gloss of justification then its dissolution lays bare once again the violence that has always been a part of it. Unsurprisingly, Medea’s response to her husband’s abandonment is to plot her revenge on the man who betrayed her, and for whom she has betrayed everything and everyone else.
Danny Sapani’s Jason endeavours to be (or to appear) reasonable: his family are outsiders in Corinth; his upcoming marriage to the King’s daughter secures his former family’s material security, but only at the price of their settling elsewhere. Where? he doesn’t know. Material well-being is the best he can offer (at one point he holds a cheque out for her to claim) but Medea is well past the point where material things are enough. Her revenge is as shocking in 2014 as it must have been in 431BC. Having poisoned Jason’s new wife she murders their sons, destroying future and past at once before leaving him broken. “There’s nothing more for you here” she tells him, carrying their bodies off-stage. “Nothing more” he echoes – his final words in the play an expression of hopelessness at the scale and savagery visited upon him. For as much as Medea loves the children she bore, she is capable of killing them to make a point.
The modern-dress production is richer for its soundtrack by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp – giving the Chorus the rhythmic backing to their speeches and leading us to think about how music may have been a part of the Greek theatre, especially in moments of great drama where Medea’s disintegrating mental state seems replicated in the violence of the sounds around her. The split-level set, with its indoor/outdoor duality comes to function as a representation of Medea’s mental state: increasingly instinctive and primal as vengeance overrides reason and the trappings of society no longer mask peoples’ true natures. McCrory captures wonderfully the moments of doubt and conscience as her character plots and then stops short, realising the full measure of what she plans before resolving, in the face of all humanity, to proceed. For me, there were intriguing echoes of ‘The Shining’ throughout Carrie Cracknell’s production, from the garish carpets in the palace that echoed Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel to the moment when one of the children entered riding a tricycle, but at the end of the day this is horror as primal as the ancient Greek mind could conceive it. And two and a half millennia after its debut, it retains a terrible power to shock. “You who have come here today / Have come here for this” the Nurse tells us at the start of the play. And so we have, even if we can’t quite explain why that should be.
Medea runs at the National Theatre, London, until 4th September, when it will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide as part of the NTLive project. For more details see: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/medea