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MEDEA, Almeida, N1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS ANCIENT TRUTH IN A GLORIOUSLY DARK DIVORCE

“I can unmake you the same way I made you. I write the story, remember?” Rachel Cusk’s brilliant vision of Euripides’ Medea for the Almeida transforms the barbarian witch into a modern-day writer: but, just as the ancient Medea’s spells had immortal force, so the new Medea’s power with words, particularly her fearless refusal to compromise on the truth, alienates and terrifies all those around her, and endows her with the ability to change her own destiny – at the terrible price of her sons’ lives. However, in Cusk’s profoundly contemporary version, Medea doesn’t actually shed blood: after all, “There are more ways of killing a child than just stabbing it to death like some wild animal.” She commits an equally unthinkable act: she abandons them. And sure enough, her children die, just as surely as if she had butchered them with her bare hands as Euripides decreed. From an elegantly restrained (Pinteresque) opening scene, Cusk sets and maintains an atmosphere of brutal tension which lashes out regularly into loud, snarling rows, placing the family on the psychological torture-rack of a messy divorce to reap a whirlwind harvest: gender battles, marriage myths, bitter recriminations about mid-life crises, all delineated with savage realism. Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have lovingly termed Euripides “the human”, but in Medea he shows us all the sides of being human we are ashamed to acknowledge, the play’s finger placed unerringly on our darkest secrets, nastiest failings, and most vulnerable weaknesses.

One of this Medea’s surprise strengths is how closely it can follow Euripides despite its modern setting, with many vital details (the cursed necklace, Glauce’s burning by poison, Aegeus’s childlessness and Medea’s clever bargain for safety in return for a cure, even her final vindication by the power of the sun) lovingly and cleverly transposed by Cusk, despite the introduction of an entire new character (a Brazilian cleaner, acting as a more sympathetic Chorus) and plenty of new ideas. Even Cusk’s text, which bristles and glowers with four-letter-words of all hues, will suddenly chime intimately with the original when you least expect it. Above all, Jason (a debonair Justin Salinger) is as suave, self-serving and loathsome as always; a man keen to have his way, and not interested in being made to feel bad about it. It says much for the failure of modern feminism that Cusk didn’t need to update Jason whatsoever to make his opinions, and his position, absolutely believable for a modern audience.

Kate Fleetwood is mesmerising as Medea, a taut, sinous pillar of vengeful contempt, turning her fury directly on the audience, as well as Jason: “It gives you a thrill to watch me suffer. The less I pretend, the more of a kick you get.” Our society piles just as much pressure on an abandoned wife to accept her husband’s decision as the ancient Greeks did; a Chorus of yummy mummies swap school-gate gossip and condemn: “How could she not have known?” A sudden switch from prose to rhyming couplets from a divine hermaphrodite Messenger strikes an odd note at first, but listen closely: the big finale is as horrifying, and disturbing, as ever.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

Until 14 November at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, as part of their GREEKS season. Box office: 020 7359 4404

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MEDEA – National Theatre, SE1

IN WHICH GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS MUCH TO ENJOY, AND ONLY A LITTLE TO MOAN ABOUT

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.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

At the National Theatre until 4 September: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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