A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire
I missed the National Theatre’s powerhouse production of Medea with Helen McCroy in the title role last year when a broken foot curbed my theatre outings temporarily. I am still disappointed I didn’t see it, it sounded everything a Greek tragedy should be, one that punches you in the stomach and leaves you gasping.
The Almeida’s production, as part of their Greek season is, in contrast, rather underpowered. On paper this is theatre gold with author Rachel Cusk on script duties and the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold in the director’s chair, but it’s almost too clever for its own good. All brain and little heart.
Set in modern times, Cusk has, unsurprisingly, re-written Medea as a feminist text and added in a dollop of her brand of suburban nastiness. The chorus is now a group of bitchy yummy mummies, all babyccinos and sniping. They’re good actually, you’ll recognise these characters immediately and even the dancing with baby dolls was witty and tight enough to not to make me – who is very sensitive to theatrical affectation – cringe.
In this reboot, Medea is a successful writer, her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) a less successful actor. He’s left his wife and moved in with a young, rich model with an indoor swimming pool, leaving Medea with the children. Jason is a weasley spineless twonk – again he’s very recognisable. Medea is obviously a handful, but he is unwilling or unable, to accept his part in the devastation he’s caused. “I fell in love with someone else, that’s all,” he says at one point. Unlike the Euripides’s original, he’s not doing this for the greater good and, at least, doesn’t propose picking up Medea as his mistress once things settle down.
Jason’s downfall is guaranteed the minute Medea makes a pact with the lovely Richard Cant, who plays a Hollywood producer – a modern stand in for the childless King of Athens in the original – struggling to write the book that he has promised to his publishers by the end of the month. Medea says she will write it for him on the condition he gets a script she has written made. The show will go on to be a smash hit and weave the story of Jason’s – and ultimately Medea’s – disgrace. Art imitates life as life starts imitating art.
Gender plays a huge role in this re-write. In Cusk’s (very good) hands it’s a feminist play, although the balance does tip precariously towards gender sniping. There’s a lot of ‘that’s the problem with you women’ and ‘all men have a wandering eye’ etc. Cusk’s absolutely hit the nail on the feminist head with the father of the unnamed mistress who comes to Medea to tell her to back off. His misogyny was horribly recognisable, berating Medea for not being young or beautiful enough and, worse, daring not to care. Not that women come off unscathed – Cusk would never allow that – they are complicit in the trappings of their gender, accepting of their fate as objects of the male gaze, happy, as Medea says, in their “soft bed of compromise”.
Cusk and Goold’s Medea may dig deep into gender politics and attempt to dissect what it is to be a wife and a mother, but ultimately this play is a blood bath. It’s about revenge and one woman’s determination to destroy the man who has betrayed her. Kate Fleetwood as Medea puts in a fine performance, her eyes a blaze with rage for the full 90 minutes, her impressive cheekbones seemingly sharpening with every angry exchange with her ex-husband.
Echoes of the play’s Greekness remain in the costumes that combined jeans with flowing Grecian things. This sartorial mash-up did kind of work, although I disliked the final chorus’s black/white, masculine/feminine costume that seemed curiously half-baked. The production, generally, went a little wayward towards the end, the final 15 minutes rather lost me. We had been transported from the urban modern surroundings we had been in to somewhere else, but I must have missed where – there were mountains. Cusk and Goold duck out of Medea actually killing her children; she does it metaphorically in a scene where the chorus recites the final tragedy. We learn the boys took their own lives (or maybe that’s what everyone is meant to think as in the original? – told you it was confusing).
Despite the tragic ending, I was rather unmoved – this production may have given me a great deal to think about, but little to care about.