'Medea' review or 'Medeaaaa, if you could seeeee her.'

Medea, Euripides (a new version by Rachel Cusk)
Almeida Theatre, 2nd October 2015

I’ve found Rachel Cusk’s novels pretty hard going in the past – there’s something quite cool and arch about her writing that I struggle to connect with – and the same goes for Cusk’s new version of Euripides’ ‘Medea’, which I loved, admired and loathed. Rupert Goold’s production is smart and sharp and utterly uncompromising and Kate Fleetwood is on frankly terrifying form. There are moments in this show that made me want to jump up from my seat and scream at the top of my lungs, from some sort of primal need to acknowledge my presence as a woman - but there were other scenes so grating, so MUCH, that I wanted to slide beneath my seat and disappear for good.  

This is a modern-day Medea although, as events escalate, the show gets increasingly bare and less recognisable. The contemporary costumes acquire a few mythical flourishes and Ian MacNeil’s set – which initially looks like an Ikea showroom that has been shoved incredibly hard to the right – is stripped down and gradually transforms into a neon-smeared and smoky mountain landscape. That bold and bleeding transformation is properly intriguing but director Goold doesn’t quite pull it off and neither does Cusk, whose writing feels uneven and occasionally exposed rather than exquisitely nimble. We’re left trapped between two worlds – one mythical, remote and deeply ambiguous and the other stark, tangible and modern. Neither one of these worlds envelops us completely.

Fleetwood straddles these two states quite brilliantly: she manages to be contemporary and recognisable and yet frighteningly ‘other’ too. She is a woman trapped in no-woman’s land. The production begins with Fleetwood flanked by Amanda Boxer’s cruelly carping nurse and Andy de la Tour’s ‘tutor’. Both think Medea has been far too invested in this feminism malarkey. Both think she has taken Jason’s adultery much too personally and should really just get over herself. As these two bleat out their thin and hasty judgements, Fleetwood stands stationary at the centre of the stage. Her hair falls over her face and, if you look closely, you can see her hands vibrating with the effort of holding on to a plate of chicken. She looks capable of murder before she has spoken a word.

In some senses, Cusk’s contemporary adaptation runs the risk of ‘reducing’ Medea. She is depicted as a scorned middle-class mother, devastated by her husband’s affair and unsure of her identity in the wake of this separation. She is a writer. She likes a glass of wine. She chops up carrots for her sons and screams bloody murder down the phone to her adulterous husband Jason. She is the misfit mum in the playground that the other mums gossip about. All this might have made for too normal a Medea; a woman too familiar or local to match the bloody demands of Euripides’ plot. But despite these trappings, Fleetwood’s Medea is extraordinary. Crowded by a chorus of snidely disapproving yummy mummys, this Medea becomes vastly more than the sum of her parts. She is all the rage. She is all the women. She is rejection, she is neglect, she is a thoughtless pat on the ass; she is a one-woman cry against misogyny. She is all the wrongs desperately lashing out as one.

It sounds fucking ferocious, right? I know. And I’m not denying that there are some scenes here that burn with the type of fury that suits the vast framing of Euripides’ original but also feel detailed and familiar and relevant. But there are also a lot of scenes that feel a bit silly. Medea herself is an inspired creation but the other characters are less compelling. Michele Austin plays a straight talking cleaner who is deeply pissed off with her estranged husband. All her scenes feel achingly self-conscious, trapped between the formal demands of a Greek tragedy and the looser demands of this new interpretation. When Creon comes on he basically vomits misogyny all over the stage. It feels way too pointed and, again, traps the show between two worlds. What kind of environment are we really trying to create here? Are we creating a modern version fuelled by an epic rage or we are creating something more formal, contained and perhaps a little cooler?

Even Medea is made to work too hard at some points, burdened with dragging out a subtext that already feels completely exposed. The contemporary setting, the yummy mummy chorus, the emphasis on the way that divorce fundamentally de-stabilizes the woman; all of these elements tell us that this is a committed and powerful feminist reading of ‘Medea’. We do not need to be reminded in the dialogue - but we are, again and again. Medea is given a number of speeches that are addressed directly to the audience, in which she accuses the women of betraying their sex, of hiding behind half-truths and compromise. She does everything but cry out: hypocrisy! We can almost hear the nail being hit directly on the head.

It’s when Cusk looks at her argument indirectly that this production really burns; the moments that help us see that this is world in which Medea, as she really is, cannot fully exist. Jason’s patronizing dismissal of Medea’s anger; Medea’s dependence on the men around her to support her career; the cruel contradiction inherent in the fact that the only way Medea can fight this system is by somehow pretending not to fight it. At every turn, as soon as Medea becomes too forceful she is basically rendered irrelevant: the people around her refuse to listen and respond only when she behaves, once more, in a ‘suitable’ manner. It’s at these moments – the scenes filled with a rattling despair that you know will come to nothing - that one begins to understand how a mother might be forced to do the most unnatural and gruesome thing, the murder of her children (although that ending is weirdly fudged here), in order to have any impact in a world that refuses to acknowledge her existence.