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: Charles III, Almeida Theatre

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Charles III was a very different play to the one I was expecting to see. I had read the (glowing) reviews and seen the promo pictures of the characters in Spitting Image masks and assumed it was a farce with a biting satirical edge. There was even a time that I thought it was a musical.

Maybe the real life Prince Charles was partly to blame for my pre-show assumptions,after all if any member of the royal family is rich for satire and mockery it’s our heir to the throne with his bah-humbug attitude to modern architecture (modern anything?) and his infamous convos with plants. But Mike Bartlett’s penned Charles III is far better than a rollicking farce – although it is often crying-with-laughter funny – it’s played with a seriousness and realism that surprised and impressed me.

Jocelyn Pooks rousing, majestic music accompanies the dramatic opening scene as the royals and assorted big wigs assemble for Elizabeth II’s funeral, setting the tone for a play that is compelling, emotional and thrilling. His mum still barely cold, Charles, even before he’s officially got that longed for crown on his head, is kicking up a fuss about the seen-and-not-heard nature of his role as head of state. Things go from awkward to very messy in a few days and by the second half it’s gone a bit V for Vendetta.

Everything about this new play by Barnett is brilliantly realised, from the instantly recognisable royals who grow out of their media-given straight jackets as the play develops, to the scenario of a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. None of it seemed ludicrous even when we were laughing at what seemed absurd (I admit to laughing at the tank bit with some trepidation; would I look back at this moment when there was an actual tank sitting on the foreground of Buckingham Palace and wonder what was so funny?).

I loved, loved, loved Richard Goulding’s Prince Harry who grew from the tabloid fool we know (and in many cases, love) him for today, to a sensible duty-first second son, sprouting heartfelt blank verse like his name sake Prince Hal after he’s dumped Falstaff and is trying to get into his dad’s good books. And talking of Shakespeare, his influence is all over this, from Hamlet to Richard II and, in my mind most of all, King Lear, his poetry and supernatural plot lines haunt Rupert Goold’s production. Perhaps Shakespeare is most apparent when the political turns personal, because like all stories about princes, it’s the torment of the man versus the royal figure that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Tim Piggott-Smith is brilliant at playing parts where he’s both sympathetic and enormously frustrating, a skill he’s once again called on as Charles III. He’s fantastic as a man who is led by principle to the detriment of all else. He’s confused, bordering on the brink of madness, unable to comprehend the world around him like a better dress Lear. His face as he realises he’ll never be the king he’d hope to be is heartbreaking.

Lydia Wilson gives Kate Middleton a voice for the first time and what a voice; in Mike Bartlett’s play the future queen is a steely intelligent tour de force behind that glossy hair. I thought her character was brilliantly brought to life and completely believable. I hope the real Kate has half as much drive and intelligence as Wilson’s. Oliver Chris’ William was at first a Tim-nice-but-dim who soon stepped up to do his duty, politely of course, again squeeze your eyes half shut and he could have been Wills (with rather more hair).

Charles III is the kind of play we need right now, clever, witty, full of spark, critical without being sarky. Its triumphant run at the Almeida Theatre ends in two days, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this play.

Charles III finishes at the Almeida Theatre on Saturday 31 May, but returns to the Wyndhams Theatre in the West End briefly in September. For more information visit http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/kingcharleswe.

by Suzanne Elliott