The National, London
Tragedy is a genre too often bastardised by the lazy scriptwriters of the soap operas that suffocate television schedules. Perhaps the abject bleakness of a mother slitting the throats of her young children is one step too far for writers that rely upon the maxim: ‘Greek it up’. From minute one to minute eighty seven, this very compact but equally intense adaptation of Euripides’ Medea shrouds The National with a dark cloud of good old fashioned Greek gloom. Every cloud has a silver lining, but this play is sufficiently doom laden to remain black to its core.
At the centre of this shady volcano shooting grey cinders of angst into a cauldron of despair, sits the schizophrenic radiance of Helen McCrory’s Medea: the fire at the heart of the production. Medea, as a semi-civilised figure suffused with a wild, tribal passion, is unique in tragedy’s catalogue of women, exceptional within an otherwise monochrome canon of wallflowers. Medea is the bloodflower: a complex synergy of underground witch doctor, influenced by Hecate’s charms, meets overwhelmingly neurotic lover, with an eye for the extreme and recourse to unbridled sexuality: a femme fatale of necromancy. Medea is a feminist prototype, whose power of personality reveals a rare glimmer of equality, holding sway with, even supremacy over, the male leads of Jason and Creon. It is testament to McCrory’s craftsmanship that she shoulders the responsibility of playing such a strong role and shapes a divisive character, one which can easily stoop into an inaccessible dimension of bitterness, madness and rage into her very own creation.
Other performances of tragedy at The National, most notably Polly Findlay’s Antigone, starring Christopher Eccleston as a twentieth century dictatorial Creon, have thickly layered on the political relevance of a specific era. This version of Medea, though recognisably modern in costume and set, feels refreshingly rebooted because of the subtle nuance with which McCrory handles the regret and remorse of her Medea. In Medea’s dilemma over the murder of her children, McCrory adds an essence of credibility to a character which can seem alien and alienating to a modern audience, balancing an unlikely moral conscience against the innate evil genius. McCrory conveys the psychological tumult of Medea through her powerful delivery; from the throatier snarl in the sadistic menace of her wrath, via the higher melody in the sweet semblance of surreptitious sanity, through to the primal holler at the commitment of the atrocious deed.
The innovation is the ability of the actress to create a heart-wrenchingly credible version of Medea, the success of the other trappings of modernity is mixed. One of the more inane attempts is the completely unnecessary photo-op as Jason hands his camera phone over to Medea to take a snapshot of himself with his children. Yes, it symbolizes the bittersweet absent father syndrome, coupled with the proleptic pathos of the mother in a moment of functional family behaviour, before becoming cutthroat killer, but it is also too obvious, jarringly misplaced and overly contrived. The score and choreography, while not being to the detriment of the whole are not the finest element of the play. Will Gregory and Alison Glodfrapp’s composition captures the mood of the piece overall, but the dances set to these uncomfortable, jarring beats do not always equal the quality of the music. Two of the plays highlights have to be the fractured dislocation of the warped effigy of a wedding dance between Creusa and Jason as they plunge in time to an off kilter dirge and the epileptic murder scene as Creusa dons Medea’s wedding gift, the poisoned garment. These great scenes are undercut by the spasmodic shuddering of the chorus, which in an attempt to be haunting and ghostly, turns out to be distracting and frankly comic.
These are rare blips in an otherwise well-constructed modern rendering of a two and a half millennia old tragedy. The primary revelation is the effectiveness of the props, including Medea’s dependency on those typical scourges of society: strong liquor and tobacco. The khaki vest clad, smoking Medea of the early scenes seems more Vietnam war veteran than neo-gothic, black temptress of the publicity shots. Nonetheless, both styles suit Ben Power’s version of Medea and the cigarettes and alcohol are no mere stylish accessory, but both add depth to the characterisation. The first allusion to Medea’s psychosis culminates in licking flame as she discards a cigarette announcing her intention to burn the palace down, be it metaphorically rather than literally, though either way, the smoking cauldron of an ashtray provides a fitting visual echo. Medea’s alcoholism is used more sensitively as future husband Aegeus flits on return to Athens from the oracle bearing a gift of spirit; that is of the bottled variety, not that Medea wants for Dutch courage. Aegeus does not share his booty, but sips water, leaving Medea to drink alone, becoming more maniacal in the ensuing scene. These modern vices enhance Medea’s derangement and estrangement from the other characters as the focus of her madness sways more towards her habits than Hecate’s heretical witchcraft.
Designer Tom Scutt’s realisation of director Carrie Cracknell’s vision furthers the sense of Medea’s detachment from the other characters through the complex topography of the stage. The stagecraft creates a tripartite composition. The bridge upon which Jason and new wife Creusa celebrate their marriage forms a balcony overlooking Medea’s incarceration as she remains firmly within the bounds of her chambers, stomping the stage floor, and never ascending to the upper echelons of Corinth’s royalty above; Jason comes down to her, only the poisoned wedding gift goes up from Medea. Thirdly, there is the excellent use of depth of the vast National stage as the wild woodland stretches back beneath the bridge through which the final scenes play out; the eerie lighting casts stark shadows over the stage and out into the audience. A fitting epitaph for a play which casts a morbid black gloom into the hearts and minds of the audience, before leaving them to wend their own path through the suitably stormy streets beneath a tumultuous London skyline.