““Terrible things breed in broken hearts”
Euripides’ Medea has long been considered one of the greatest roles for a woman to play so it is a little surprising (or perhaps not) that it hasn’t been performed at the National Theatre before. But the winds of change blow even on the South Bank so it makes great sense that one of our finest living actresses, Helen McCrory, should take on the part in a production by Carrie Cracknell, herself responsible for making some of that change with recent shows like A Doll’s House and Blurred Lines.
Ben Power’s new version relocates the betrayed Medea in a blasted contemporary setting (another ingeniously cracking design from Tom Scutt, evocatively lit by Lucy Carter) where she and her two children anxiously await news of the husband and father who has abandoned them for a newly politically expedient marriage. Trapped in a foreign land, having severely burned her bridges with her homeland, we watch helplessly along with a hefty Greek Chorus as grief inexorably transmutes into anger.
Cracknell has collaborated most interestingly cross-discipline in her production. The electro-organic score by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp pulses and builds through the production most effectively, moments of choral singing portend ominously like storm clouds. These swells of music also hold the Chorus in their sway physically, Lucy Guerin’s choreography being used in a couple of striking visual sequences whose jerky movements seem set to divide audiences. I rather liked the theatrical effect it provided, suggesting perhaps a touch of divine or at least mystical manipulation.
The 13-strong Chorus, replete with dancers such as Yuyu Ra, Clemmie Sveaas and Naomi Tadevossian as well as more familiar faces (to me) like Lorna Brown and Jane Wymark, speaks of something of the luxury casting here, like bringing in the lusciously bearded Dominic Rowan for what is little more than a cameo as Athenian king Aegeus. Martin Turner’s Kreon and Toby Wharton as a sympathetic attendant register strongly in their scenes though Danny Sapani’s gruffly distant Jason might do a little more to fully breathe as a character. And Michaela Coel’s searchingly compassionate nurse is a triumph, continuing a superb year for her.
For all else pales alongside McCrory’s excoriating presence as Medea, her rage and fury never far from the surface yet clearly much more dangerous when calm and still. Unafraid, even desperate, to use whatever she can to escape her fate, cold wheels of calculation are ever-turning in her mind, guiding her every action so that it’s never entirely clear when she is being genuine, indeed the all-encompassing nature of her shell-shocked self as McCrory plays it, means she might not even know herself.
In a week when the gender (im)balance of the cabinet reshuffle has focused on so many of the wrong things, it is clear why Medea has endured as an undeniable classic. The presence of women in the political sphere was, and still is, a challenge to so many and Cracknell’s astutely updated production reminds us that though we have come some way, there is still much further to go – won’t somebody think of the children…