This was the most disappointing piece of theatre I’ve seen at the NT in quite a few years. Almost as bad as Frankenstein, and without that show’s mildly worth-it first ten minutes.

I don’t even know where to begin. For context, I should probably mention that the last Medea I saw was the monumental, utterly devastating, awe-inspiringly austere production directed by Michael Thalheimer in Frankfurt last year. Here’s the review of that. Thalheimer was extraordinarily successful at finding a theatrical form that maintained Medea’s other-worldliness, that made her bigger, greater, more terrifying than anyone else on stage from the moment she first shows up — an appropriate status for the grand-daughter of the sun (i.e., Helios) and a newcomer to Corinth from the strange land of Colchis, a realm populated by mythological figures and in its archaic power far removed from the civilization of Euripides’ Athens, or Creon’s Corinth.

Arguably, Medea’s position as a solitary figure, alien in every way, is an essential feature of the play. Or at least, of Euripides’ play. There, for instance, Medea explicitly identifies her alien status as one major reason why Jason has abandoned her: “You thought that in later years a barbarian wife would discredit you” (in David Kovacs’s thorough-if-a-bit-plodding Loeb Classical Library translation). Ben Power renders that same line as “You looked to the future / And saw yourself old / With an old wife bringing shame upon you.” And that, in a nutshell, is the first big problem with this Medea. She may still be from Colchis (Jason tells her “I civilised you!”), but she’s been thoroughly domesticated.

This disappearance of everything that makes Medea exceptional begins with Ben Power’s adaptation (which admittedly shrinks everything down to the language — and the stakes — of modern family and corporate life; thus Jason can complain, in a gag-worthy sentence, that “The gods have seen now / That here I offered myself, / My contacts and my resources / To your aid.” I don’t think the gods know what “contacts and resources” are). It’s reinforced by Tom Scutt’s set, which turns Medea’s house in Corinth into a run-down 1970s villa (Why? I have never understood this odd compulsion to modernize by transposing old plays into the recent past, but not the present. What do the 70s do for this production other than provide opportunities for set, costume, and props people to get excited?). This is unmistakably a domestic interior, recreated with lots of decorative (if unused) props; that it also backs up onto what looks like a woodland wilderness is interesting, but I wish that space had been more consistently used — it is the place where Medea screams at the beginning, and lights a fire, and the place where she disappears at the end, but it’s also where the boys play, and where various other (Corinthian) characters appear from, so it’s not rigorously associated with wildness and Medea at all. And if the program notes are anything to go by, the notion that Medea is an ever-so-modern figure may well have informed the entire production. I’ll quote this bit at length, because I find it so very infuriating. Here’s the classicist Edith Hall on Medea:

Criminological and psychological research has also revealed chilling resemblances between the portrait of the child-killing mother painted by Euripides and the profile of her contemporary equivalents.

Study after study has shown that the typical filicidal mother is in her mid-twenties, has two or three children, has custody of them, and commits the crime in the marital home. She has committed at least one previous violent offence, is often well educated, is suffering from extreme isolation and has no female relatives of her own to support her.

And so on, and so forth. In sum: Medea fits the bill. She’s just like our filicidal women. Plus ça change! And if that’s true, it does of course make perfect sense for the lawyer Helena Kennedy, in another program note, to use Medea as the jumping off point for a response to the question of “Why do women kill?”

I’m not saying that plays about ordinary female murderers shouldn’t be staged. Not at all. But if we treat Medea like a typical (precisely not an archetypical) female killer, we reduce her to near-insignificance. The kinds of answers criminologists and psychologists, or lawyers, can give are not the answers Euripides’ play is concerned with — they miss the point. The point about Medea is not that she’s common; it’s that she’s utterly exceptional. Has she committed “at least one previous violent offence”? Well… how about tricking the daughters of Jason’s rival Pelias into murdering their own father and destroying “his whole house”? Does that count? My point is not that the profile of a female filicide that Edith Hall sketches doesn’t apply to Medea — in a Venn diagram, the Medea circle might well swallow up the female filicide circle wholesale. But what makes Medea Medea is the rest of her much larger, much less easily analyzed circle. A pedestrian Medea isn’t Medea at all, but simply a poor, mistreated woman under extreme emotional stress. And that is exactly how Helen McCrory plays her, in a performance that for all its apparent emotional intensity completely misses the character. She’s mad at Jason, she’s angry, she’s vindictive; but none of those feelings, none of those wrathful impulses spring from sources as deep as those Euripides gives his Medea.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the exchange with Aegeus (who, in a mind-bendingly trivial set of lines, gets to tell her that “I am so sorry. / Your marriage always seemed / So complete a partnership”). There, Medea makes Aegeus swear an oath. Nothing matters as much to her as oaths in Euripides. Jason’s breaking of his oath to her is the offence she keeps returning to — it is the act that most cries out for punishment, a divine punishment whose agent Medea will become. The scene survives almost intact in Power’s adaptation, so it’s not the text’s fault that little of the intensity of that moment translates into either McCrory’s or Dominic Rowan’s performances (as Aegeus). When Medea pushes him to specify the curse that will befall him if he commits perjury, this Aegeus laughs bemusedly as he offers a throw-away “Whatever falls / Upon the worst blasphemer” — and Medea, clearly not especially bothered by his lack of seriousness, laughs along.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s probably perfectly justifiable to play this moment like that. It may even be possible to play Medea in a way that erases her obsession with oaths. But the more those aspects of her character, the preoccupation with ritual, with transactions that bring the human and the divine or supernatural together, her existence in a kind of liminal space between humans and gods, are removed, the more she loses what makes her a powerful figure. And once that happens, the play suddenly starts to feel very ordinary. As a consequence, it becomes almost impossible to see Medea’s filicide as anything other than an act of madness. And that, too, is ordinary. In fact, it’s safe, even familiar, and much less terrifying than the range of possibilities Euripides leaves open. Because what’s actually unsettling about Medea is not that she kills her sons, but that in some sense, in some internally coherent system of ethics, she may in fact be doing the right thing.

Medea’s extremity is not the only thing that’s lost in this production, though. Jason’s extreme suffering is barely there either. I don’t really understand what Danny Sapani is doing with that role, or how he has been directed. But neither his anger nor his devastation seem to register in his body — when he eventually decides not to remain standing up after the discovery of his sons’ bloody towels, he doesn’t collapse, he carefully kneels down, as if to pray or plead. For me at least, there was never a sense that Jason had been utterly crushed; and it seems indicative of something that instead of “crawl[ing] off” (as Power’s script indicates), Sapani walked off at the end — slowly, but upright and in control of his legs still. The Attendant, who gets to deliver the marvellously gruesome report of Creusa and Creon’s deaths, likewise seems less troubled by the horrors he has witnessed than one might hope: he’s excited, perhaps a bit distraught and stressed, but hardly shaken to his core. In general, characters and their actors react to trauma in this production as one might to seeing a nasty traffic accident or to hearing that a close friend has died: they are affected, they aren’t indifferent, but their reactions fall within the compass of everyday emotional responses. They never reach the level of intensity, of extraordinary, immeasurable, uncontainable horror or grief that the play is concerned with. The unkind way of putting this would be that it’s too tame a production, or too polite; a kinder, but actually no less sharply critical charge would be that it’s all too human. Euripides’ play explores the fringes of human emotions — the areas where levels of pain and wrath almost transcend what seems possible. Ben Power’s adaptation and Carrie Cracknell’s production instead present an all-too-familiar, all-too-contained, all-too-recognizable version of domestic trauma.

Two more formal points, and then I’m done.

The chorus has come in for quite a bit of critical flak because of its dancing. I didn’t mind the dancing, as such. But what it’s meant to signify troubled me. Andrew Haydon speculates that the choral “Haitian voodoo dancers evok[e] Medea’s Colchis-based witchy-ness,” and I suspect he’s right. Which is precisely the problem. The most defamiliarized figures in the entire production are the members of the chorus. At various moments, they break into highly stylized, jerky dance sequences, with the final one (which does seem Voodoo-inspired) accompanying Medea’s off-stage infanticide. But that’s not who the chorus is. To the extent that this approach makes the choral women more like Medea — even as “witchy” as Medea — it reduces her isolation in Corinth. If there’s an entire crowd of female strangers surrounding Medea, what exactly is her problem? In the play, the Women of Corinth play a crucial mediating function: they chastise Jason, they sympathize with Medea, but their perspective is that of Corinth, not of Colchis; and their reaction to the infanticide aligns them with Jason. So as visually neat as the dance sequences may be, and as vocally interesting some of the choral speaking may be, neither actually helps: if Medea isn’t the strangest figure in the play, something’s gone awry.

Point the second: verse. This, too, I don’t get. If the production had used a highly poetic rendition of Euripides, I would understand why actor after actor seems to stress the line endings in Power’s text — a text written in free verse with mostly very short lines. But Power’s script isn’t especially poetic. As I whined above, it flirts with the pedestrian. Why then the forcedly theatrical delivery? There is something very odd about actors in modern dress stepping into a modern set speaking a modern prose-like text as if they were declaiming Shakespeare. And yet, that happened over and over again. Why? One of the liberating aspects of using a translation such as this surely must be that it gives the actor far greater vocal freedom, far more opportunities to explore casual tones (something the ensemble of the Deutsche Schauspielhaus did extremely effectively in Karin Beier’s production of Agamemnon this year). But no.

So again, why? I suspect it’s a last-ditch effort, likely unconscious, to give the play back the gravity it’s lost in all other respects. With stakes reduced to the domestic, the only choice left to proclaim the near-cosmic significance of the play’s events may have been adopting speech patterns familiar from UK Shakespeare productions. The content may disappoint, so let’s make sure the tone doesn’t. I wish that instead they’d doubled down on the normal, the everyday, the unremarkable in that respect as well. That at least might have yielded a coherent, if unremarkable, production of a play about some poor, devastated woman who goes mad with anger and kills her children. That wouldn’t be Medea at all, but it might have made better sense as a show.

2 Responses to Medea (Euripides/Ben Power/Carrie Cracknell, National Theatre, London, August 2014)

  1. Sooze Kay says:

    In short I totally disagree with you….I found it riveting and evocative. The end scene where Medea is stumbling carrying her dead children into the woods is horrific. I was extremely emotional at the end and it has stayed with me for days…it just shows how terribly subjective a play can be.Helen McCory was magnificent as Medea.

  2. Pinpan says:

    Oh my gosh I do agree. How refreshing to read a review that is not proselytising about how amazing this production is. The show I saw tonight was almost embarrassing. At the prologue, I was deeply disappointed in the nurse and the first few utterances of Medea wailing in the woods just made my heart sink. She hit histrionic in her first note. I didn’t once believe in anything any of the minor characters said. Medea moved me maybe a couple of times but on the whole the production was pretty lame. I’m not sure if it was the choreography or the execution of it that was risible but I suspect it was both. A little of that concept goes a way long way. My pal and I were jerking our arms all the way to the tube in laughter. By the way I spent years training in dance studios so I’m no philistine. I agree with this review that this version of the play made mediocre nonsense of it. I imagine that I saw Helen on a really off night. I know sometimes that happens. I’m almost tempted to see it again to see if it could be that bad when nearly all the reviews are raving…. I feel tremendously awful being this negative but tonight was bad….

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