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: Antigone, Barbican

Obi Abili, Juliette Binoche and Patrick O'Kane performing in Antigone. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld/HO/EPAFresh from his success in the director’s chair of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – now triumphantly transferred to the West End – director Ivo van Hove transfers his skills to the Barbican’s adaptation of Sophokles’ Antigone.

Swapping a 20th century tragedy for one written in 441BC van Hove’s employs many of his directionally flourishes that worked so well in Arthur Miller’s tale to this Classical text, but with far less success. The stark staging that allows actors to casually sit and the loud soundtrack that made such an impact in A View from the Bridge, both seem out of place in Antigone, as if the stage notes had got muddled with another, far punchier, production.

If nothing else, van Hove still has the story which of course ticks all the Greek tragedy boxes, including fratricide, despotic rulers and amusing messengers. Antigone’s life was probably never destined to be great, after all as the daughter of Oedipus, her mother – Jocasta – is also her grandmother. If that wasn’t enough, her brothers – fighting for opposing sides – kill each other in fighting to rule. The new ruler, Creon, declares that Etecoles – whose death meant he got to be king – will be honoured while his brother, Polyneices, will be left to rot where he fell. Reasonably, Creon decrees that anyone attempting to bury Polyneices will be killed. Antigone, no stranger to family drama, is determined to defy the rules and give her brother the send off he deserves. Her sister, Ismene, isn’t very keen on the idea and the play opens with a sisterly spat that sees them fall out for ever. All alone in the world, Antigone, is determined to put blood-ties before her own survival.

I was gripped by the story, my knowledge of Greek theatre is poor, but on this occasion my ignorance served me well as Anne Carson’s retelling of Sophokles’ ancient tale was probably the highlight. The opening scene, when Juliette Binoche’s black clad Antigone walks out onto a sandstorm for her confrontation with Kirsty Bushell’s secretarial-like Ismane is wonderfully dramatic and evocative. But once the wind machine was turned down, the production seemed to lose the wind from its sails.

For a genre that is famously tense with emotion, this production of a Greek classic, was rather cold and lacking in spirit; it was difficult to believe these characters would have enough passion to disobey an over zealous traffic warden who’d put a parking ticket on their chariot, let alone their leader at pain of death. The lack of connection, I think, can be partly explained by the play being visually contemporary, but there being no effort made to make the story relevant to modern day audiences. I wasn’t sure whether we were meant to be understanding this from an ancient Greek point of view (never easy at the best of times) or from a 21st century mindset where our references would have been different.

Binoche as Antigone gave a very considered performance, but whether this is a curse of the do-gooding daughter role (see also King Lear’s Cordelia) was a little dull. In fact few of the performances were loaded with personality, Obi Abili as the guard was a brilliant exception, his comic timing bringing a welcome shot of humour in a production that was otherwise a little one note.

Antigone | Barbican Centre | Until 28 March 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Electra, Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Featuring enough wailing, gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands to make King Lear look like a sitcom, it takes a skilled hand to translate and reenact the melodrama of Sophocles’ Electra – the ancient playwright’s tale of the Princess of Argos who was sent into the pit of despair by the death of her father by her mother – to suit modern audience’s less histrionic tastes without losing the drama of the original.  

And hands don’t get much more skilled that Frank McGuinness especially when his translated script is brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson. Scott Thomas owns the stage – or rather the Round – from the minute she opens the doors of her mother and stepfather’s mansion – or as Electra calls it in her hyperbolic way, her prison – bounding down the stairs to the sandy space that she prowls like an injured lioness for the next one hour 40 minutes.

Besides the sand and those big doors, there are few props, just a bare tree trunk and the rather odd addition of a standing tap. If there’s one thing this production missteps on, it’s the inability to make up its mind as to which era we’re in; superficially it’s ancient Greece, but then there’s denim dresses and running water. There’s also more than a touch of modernity in McGuinness’s script, which is sprightly and often humorous, or at least Scott Thomas finds the wit in the contemporary rhythm of her delivery.

But despite the odd guffaw, this is serious stuff. Scott Thomas’ Electra distress is evident in her physicality; painfully thin, twitchy, dusty with that sand, bent double with grief, hatred and anger. Perhaps at times, her performance tips over into the overdramatic, her tears of anguish on hearing of the supposed death of her brother was to my ears more grating than great and their reunion bordering on the affected.  But then, Electra, the play and the woman, were never meant to be subtle.

I liked Scott Thomas best when she was spitting venom, much of it aimed at her poor mother who threatens to put her in an asylum if she doesn’t stop her ravings. There’s a great stand off between her and her hated mother, played with cool poise by  Diana Quick.

I was caught up in Scott Thomas’ performance, perhaps less so by the story and, as good as the supporting cast is – and some, including Quick and Peter Wight as Orestes’ (played by the physically imposing Jack Lowdon last seen, by me at least, in the Almedia’s Ghosts) gruff servant are very good – this was her show. Even the score by PJ Harvey but muted, its haunting strains seeping quietly through and underpinning, but never overwhelming, Electra’s distress.

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by Suzanne Elliott