Finding a way to put Greek Tragedy on a 21st Century stage is never easy. Some of the conventions of ancient theatre – the chorus, for example – do not sit easily in today’s theatre. This makes the National Theatre’s achievement in mounting this excellent production of Medea all the more impressive. Perhaps their trump card is having an actor of the calibre of Helen McCrory ready to take on the challenge of playing Medea, and of presenting her as a complex, contradictory character – neither a vengeful monster nor an abused woman fighting back with desperate measures. It’s also the case that the murder of children by a vengeful parent – admittedly it’s usually the father – is a topic that is timeless and rarely out of the pages of our newspapers for more than a few months.
Carrie Cracknell takes us to a Corinth that is clearly a modern city with men – Jason, Creon and Aegeus – who are playing a political power game that is very modern in style. The set is disconcerting; most of its elements are contemporary – the court in which the wedding of Jason and Kreusa takes place is in an upper level glass walled chamber. But the centre of the lower level is a wood into which Medea often disappears and through which the chorus sometimes emerges. This uneasy coexistence is mirrored in other ways. The admirable translation by Ben Power locates the tragedy in a world populated by human beings not archetypes and the language they speak is clear and determinedly down-to-earth. This works for 90% of the play but feels wrong at the “extreme” moments – for example, when Medea talks about the poisoned gown she intends to be given to Kreusa at the wedding. It also leads to an uneasy set of contradictions in the way the chorus becomes involved in the action, sometimes as if women sympathising with Medea in the village square, sometimes as if spirits possessed by St Vitus Dance.
These occasional jarring moments might matter more were it not for Helen McCrory’s extra-ordinary performance. She is entirely believable as she swings between the heartbroken abandoned wife and the desperate woman imagining the horrific forms that her vengeance might take. She speaks the lines with total commitment but she also inhabits the role physically – there is intensity about her physical presence that fills the large Olivier stage. She is well supported by Danny Sapani’s solid, wheeler-dealer Jason whose pragmatic justification for abandoning Medea is all too believable. Only his reaction to the fate of his sons falls short of the demands of the role. Dominic Rowan as Aegeus and Martin Turner as Kreon are fine too but somehow look just a little pallid alongside McCrory.
The ending doesn’t work but that’s not the fault of the translator or the director. It needs an end like Strauss’ Salome – something violent and final. But it’s never less than gripping and even the weaknesses are fascinating. A great actor and a hugely inventive director provide the best theatre in London this sultry summer.