'Medea' review or 'Are these sleeping bags waterproof?'

Medea, Euripides. A new version by Ben Power
National Theatre (Olivier), 21st July 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo

At the end of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, Medea whisks away her sons’ corpses in the sun god’s flying chariot. In writer Ben Power’s and director Carrie Cracknell’s modern version, Helen McCrory’s Medea drags two blood-soaked sleeping bags off stage. This is Medea brought down to earth. It is a striking and thoughtful adaptation – but the tragedy never truly takes off.  

Designer Tom Scutt has transformed the Olivier stage into a large but shabby flat, which hides little pockets of magic and mysticism. Dull crimson curtains sweep open to reveal a full-on forest outside, with a fire flickering behind two lonely swings. As Medea plots her revenge, she pulls up the floorboards and extracts various murder weapons from the muddy depths below. Upstairs, a glassed off room reveals a world of beauty and power that lies far beyond the spurned Medea’s reach.

Helen McCrory’s Medea is a surprisingly normal figure. She wears tracksuit bottoms and a vest top, smokes cigarettes and swigs greedily at vodka. Even later, when Medea dons an ethereal white gown and begins to unravel, this is still a woman we can recognise. When Medea snaps at her adulterous husband, Jason, she is the embodiment of the modern day middle-aged wife. She scoffs at her husband’s ‘pathetic mid-life lust’ and we laugh along with her.

It is refreshing to see a Medea we might understand – or even know – but McCrory’s interpretation ultimately falls short. McCrory’s strength has always been in the feisty humanity she brings to her roles; she is brilliant at playing dark-edged contemporary women. But there is something larger than life about Euripides’ Medea, something huge and unfathomable and terrifying – and McCrory’s Medea never quite reaches those heights.

Couched within this modern and slightly under-fired context, the play begins to feel a little silly and the characters, unbelievable. McCrory’s Medea is sarcastic and defiant – but she never seems like a woman capable of murdering her two children. Her husband, Jason (played with an arrogant grace by Danny Sapani) is laughably self-centred – but the idea of him inciting Medea to chop her brother ‘into little pieces’ sounds wildly off the mark. Even the children, sloping about and watching TV, don’t quite hold the mystery needed to make sense of this extraordinary play.

Ben Power’s translation is brisk and sharp but a little too cool. It could’ve done with a bit more precision – that claustrophobic embrace of tragedy – and a touch more shadowy lyricism. The only one who really makes the script sing is Michaela Coel, who plays Medea’s maid.  Coel is a poet herself and she stabs at the text, carving out a defined and ominous rhythm. ‘There is nothing for us but this story/In this place/Forever’, beats out Coel, and we shudder in fear.

Director Carrie Cracknell is most successful with the music and dance-filled interludes in between the ‘scenes proper’. A chorus of twelve girls swirls about Medea, juddering in a sort of zombie-like disco. Electric duo, Goldfrapp, have composed original music for this show and it is macabre and vibrant, with shuddering accordions and weeping violins. In one memorable scene, Jason dances with his new wife, as the female chorus looks on and the music crackles. It is a moment filled with longing, innocence and terror - and the thrilling promise of awful vengeance. 


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