Theatre review: Medea, Almeida

A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

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.

Medea | Almeida Theatre, N1 | Until 14 November 2015

Theatre Review: Three Days in the Country, the Lyttelton, National Theatre

Patrick Marber’s retelling of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is witty and elegant, full of gags and Russian angst

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin ©Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin © Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country is Patrick Marber’s reboot of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the action condensed into three days and this National Theatre production cut to two hours 15 minutes  versus the Russian playwright’s bum-numbing four.

Set in a grand country estate, the home of rich landowner Arkady (John Light), in the mid 19th century, Three Days in the Country has all the ingredients for a pre-revolutionary Russian tale of heartbreak and woe.  Class division? Check. Unrequited love? By the bucket load. A big house in the country, a weapon and an interloper whose thrown a spanner into the works? Da, da, da.

A languid air hangs over the stage, created here by Neil Austin’s lighting and Mark Thompson’s painted backdrop and spacious set, but behind this seemingly tranquil facade lie deep passions, betrayals and unhappiness. What, you thought a piece of Russian literature was going to be lighthearted and frivolous?

The outsider who is the catalyst for trouble is Belyaev, the handsome young tutor to Kolya, the son of Arkady and his restless wife Natalya (Amanda Drew). His arrival puts the household in a tizz and causes a fatal rift between Natalya and her 17-year-old ward, Vera (a brilliant stage debut by Lily Sacofsky) as they both fall in love with this enigmatic young man.

Also court in Cupid’s crossfire is an old family friend, Rakitin (John Simm), who has nursed a deep love for Natalya for 20 long years. Simm is excellent in the role giving a wonderfully composed performance that captures Rakitin’s bitterness, pain and desperation with real feeling.  

Despite the rather bleak path the story weaves (although compared to Chekhov this is Neighbours) there is a light touch to Marber’s witty script and the modern cadence to the dialogue gives Turgenev’s tale a fresh edge and a big dollop of humour. Mark Gatiss as the hopeless doctor, Shpigelsky, turns in a particularly fine comic performance that produces the funniest scene of the play, collapsing with backache during a bluff  proposal of marriage to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta who was Gatiss’s comedy equal in a scene that threatened to steal the show. A less arthritic audience might have been rolling in the aisles.

Beautifully acted with great subtlety and space, Three Days in the Country is a lovely production that’s nicely paced and understated with just enough heart and soul.

Three Days in the Country | Lyttelton Theatre | Until October 21 2015

Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Book review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster is one of those extraordinary ordinary novels that is riveting in its everyday-ness

Nora Webster, the 10th novel from Irish master of words, Colm Tóibín, is loosely based on his own mother’s experience of grief. This novel is personal enough for to Tóibín to have struggled for 10 years to write it, so close was it to his own family’s experience.

Set in Tóibín’s hometown of Enniscorthy, Wexford County at the end of the 1960s, the brewing Troubles provide a TV level hum of discontent to an otherwise millpond life. The eponymous hero, Nora Webster, has, when we first meet her, recently been left widowed at the age of 44 with four children, two almost grown up girls and two young teenage boys. Told chronologically, the novel is the story – or as much of a story as Tóibín will ever tell – of her grief, from the raw early days to three years later, when her pain lies lighter in her heart and Maurice, her late husband, becomes a less frequent presence on the page.

Maurice’s death takes place off the page just before we meet Nora – who is, in those early days, having to contend with a constant parade of well-intentioned visitors who are lining up to offer condolences and dish out orders. From that point, we follow Nora as she sells the family’s seaside house, goes back to work, dyes her hair to the shock of the small town, goes on holiday to Spain where she sleeps in a boiler room to get away from her aunt’s snoring, and paints her back room.

There are many moments of quiet awakening, most notably in her discovery of music, something Maurice never took an interest in. Nora joins a choir and the rather pompous Gramophone Society, through which she discovers Bach and Dvořák. She even buys a record player and begins making trips to Dublin to buy records as the music lifts her out of numbness and gently nudges her into her new life post-Maurice.

Tóibín’s novel is a wonderful study in a woman’s struggle with grief and her self-discovery. Maurice’s absence is felt through her loneliness and a sense of free falling, the feeling of being trapped without the anchor of a partner by her side.

Nora Webster is written in Tóibín’s characteristically plain prose that’s stripped of any creative writing flourishes. Broken down, at times it reads like a list, or a functionary weekend diary entry, but its very plainness beautifully captures the mundane everyday of grief and the daily grind of life. This, after struggling to make ends meet after Maurice’s death. “After much argument, she had finally been granted a second pension, and both pensions had been increased in the previous year’s budget. She had not been aware at first that the extra money had been backdated by six months and she was surprised to get cheques in the post for what she thought were large sums of money.”

As ever, there’s poetry in Tóibín’s bleak prose that serves to highlight the streak of sadness that runs through Nora’s life as she wades through her grief, watching her children struggle to overcome their sorrow while finding her own way through the darkness. I was particularly touched by stuttering Donal who finds solace in photography and whose loneliness Nora is powerless to prevent.

Nora herself is a extremely private person with a steeliness that lays buried until she’s forced to defend herself or her family. She is a divisive person we come to understand, some of the characters are drawn to her while others – her sisters included – find her prickly, uncooperative, rude and, to her family she often is. The book is told from her perspective, and, while it’s never stated, they are, in their familial closeness, clearly the target of her grief fuelled anger.

But there is a warmth too to this novel that seeps through the spacious prose that pulls you into the minutia of Nora’s small life with the force that only a truly great novel can.