MEDEA – National Theatre, SE1


It is always exciting to have a new Medea, possibly the most controversial of all Euripides’ tragedies, documenting a crime still felt to be fundamentally shocking and unnatural: and Ben Power has given us a tense, profound and horrifying Medea which recalls Euripides’ original closely in mood and pace. The simple clarity of Power’s text brings the play easily to new audiences, and while it doesn’t quite have the acid brilliance of Euripides’ wordplay, Power still treats us to occasional moments of real poetry (childbirth is “the unknown agonies where life and death dance together”). Meanwhile, Carrie Cracknell’s fast, dynamic production gives us an urgent sense of the inexorability of Medea’s terrible outcome. Designed by Tom Scutt, the split-level set subtly recalls a classical temple in shape, with Jason’s second wedding going on upstairs in an appropriately-fragile-looking glass box (complete with cake, flowers and white piano), while below in Medea’s house the peeling walls, eerie garden and sparse furniture speak of opulence run dry. Scutt’s elegant costumes fit this changing mood: the Chorus are prim bridesmaids one moment, dark horrors the next,  partly thanks to inspired lighting by Lucy Carter.

Helen McCrory is luminous and magnetic as Medea, showing us all her seductive qualities and sensitively unravelling her descent into murder in a powerfully intelligent, vibrant performance. We can see and feel the deftness with which Medea manipulates all the men (and women) around her: the warmth with which she meets her saviour-to-be, Aegeus (the brilliant Dominic Rowan), whose fatal mention of childlessness gives Medea the idea for Jason’s ultimate punishment, gives real verve and significance to a scene which could otherwise have felt merely convenient. Danny Sapani is an appropriately smug, weak and self-justifying Jason, turning up to drink Medea’s whisky and patronisingly flourish his chequebook at the problem: Sapani carefully exposes Jason’s drastic underestimation of Medea, even managing to gain our sympathy at times. The bitter antipathy of a modern divorce in progress bristles nicely between them, with all its petty vindictiveness and messy emotional history sharply delineated.

Lucy Guerin’s choreography is assured, with a great deal of disciplined twitching and jerking: while superbly executed, this danse macabre often distracts our eye from the protagonists, and only truly fits the sentiment of the fifth ode (just before the children are killed). The intention behind their movements is that the Chorus evoke Medea’s state of mind: the effect is that the Chorus are drained of personality in order to become ciphers for Medea’s emotion. Given the ferocious psychological power of McCrory’s Medea, we don’t need the Chorus to gild this lily: much of Euripides’ human interest in the Chorus’ own predicament, as stateless refugees who will be victims of whatever Medea decides, is consequently lost, though their dancing and singing are immaculate. The music, by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, is often beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric, but tends to overflow at times into a cinematic expanse of swelling emotion which can’t honestly fit the compressed, neurotic and psychotic world of Euripides’ masterpiece.

Nevertheless, McCrory’s fiercely brilliant central performance makes Ben Power’s threatening, thought-provoking Medea a must-see.


At the National Theatre until 4 September: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating


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