Robert Tanitch reviews Medea at National Theatre/Olivier Theatre, London
Let’s face it, Medea is never going to win the Mother of the Year Award. Carrie Cracknell’s modern dress production, in a version by Ben Power, follows hard on the heels of Neil Bartlett’s modern suburban version seen last year. It would be nice, for a change, to set Euripides’s earliest surviving tragedy in Ancient Greece.
Medea takes a terrible revenge when her husband, Jason, decides to ditch her and marry Kreusa, the daughter of King Kreon of Corinth.
The story, one of the most terrifying murder stories ever written, has been told many times; but it was Euripides, in 431BC, who made it even more horrific by having Medea kill not only the bride and king but also her own children.
There are no less than 53 operas based on the legend. The role has attracted such actresses as Sarah Bernhardt, Judith Anderson, Maria Callas, Eileen Atkins, Diana Rigg and Fiona Shaw.
There is no suggestion of the barbarian and sorceress in Helen McCrory’s performance, which is at a much more domestic, teeth-brushing level. The scenes which make the most dramatic impact are her final ones.
Normally, Euripides’s tragedy ends with Medea, triumphant, being whisked away in a golden chariot. Here she staggers off into the smoky distance lugging the dead bodies of her two sons in garbage bags. It looks like one of those ghost scenes you find in classic Japanese films of the 1960’s.
The two-level setting, which includes a banquet room upstairs and a forest downstairs, is unattractive. The chorus is ineffective vocally. They are more interesting in a stylized wedding dance along a balcony and also when they are reacting in dance to Medea’s infanticide off-stage. The music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp helps enormously.
The play’s verbal high spot, well delivered by Toby Wharton, is a horrific description of what happened when Kreusa and Kreon came into contact with the poisoned cloak which Medea had sent as a wedding present to the bride.