“I don’t think you realise how extraordinary your anger is”
So Rupert Goold closes his #AlmeidaGreeks season by directing Kate Fleetwood, who just happens to be his wife, in the title role of Medea. And as with Oresteia and Bakkhai, a new version has been commissioned from an unconventional source, this time novelist Rachel Cusk. So we leave ancient Greece for modern-day London, Medea becomes a writer whose actor-husband Jason has left her for a model and the chorus becomes a garrulous gaggle of pashmina-wielding yummy mummies as concerned with the calories in croissants as the parenting of their peer.
Cusk frames her play essentially as a series of conversations by which Medea finds herself pummelled, in search of a self she hid for 15 years of marriage and is struggling to relocate post-divorce and where Fleetwood excels is in showing the range and depth of her despair. Lacerated into silence by Amanda Boxer’s caustic nurse, lambasted by children who won’t leave her alone (Louis Sayers and Guillermo Bedward both excellent at this performance), left behind by Justin Salinger’s Jason with whom she argues thrillingly viciously, the intensity is immense and Fleetwood sustains it throughout.
And as the play develops and darkens, Goold feeds in increasing hints of its origins. Ian MacNeil’s Aria-perfect home set unpeels to reveal apocalyptic vistas in acid brights, Holly Waddington’s costumes transform beautifully (loving Jason’s jacket!) to suggest the amphitheatre, the arrival of a divine Messenger to relay crucial climactic events notionally traditional but strikingly unconventional in Charlotte Randle’s Victor/Victoria-inspired get-up which wrong-footed us visually as well as verbally, as the extent of the adaptation becomes clear.
In so many ways, this is an exhilarating interpretation of Euripides’ play and Cusk’s well-aired marital experiences bring a fiercely modern take to its exploration of parenthood in the light of divorce, lending a pointed power to the fate of Medea’s children here. But there’s also a sense of Cusk defending Medea a little too much, excising her past dials down the crazy (so brilliantly realised by Marieke Heebink for Simon Stone and Toneelgroep Amsterdam last year) and the brutal (Helen McCrory has never felt so dangerous as in Carrie Cracknell’s version for the NT), and the tale’s new progression recasts her as something of a victim whose supernatural power is to apparently be the best writer in the world.
So not unproblematic, but still fascinating in the issues it raises and anchored by Fleetwood’s blistering performance, a fitting end to an extraordinary season at the Almeida.