Plainingly speaking, there are two reasons why the National theatre production of Medea* is all shades of brilliant: The first reason is Helen McCrory. The second reason is everything else. With a play like Medea, it’s prim and proper that a star dominates the story. To McCrory’s credit she does it open-heartedly, and to the production’s credit, she doesn’t eclipse everyone else. I don’t use the word “star” casually: Medea is the granddaughter of the god Helios (the sun god, if your greek is rusty). A star is the only option and an eclipse the risk to take.
The play starts with the children’s nurse recounting a story. It’s both the past and the future. It’s not prophecy or premonition, more the natural law driven to its logical conclusion. Inevitability and logic, argument and counter argument play out with fiery passion throughout the play. It’s equations saturated with fire. Ben Power’s adaptation bristles with unquiet energy, Carrie Cracknell creates a world which is as precise as it is dangerous.
Two questions consume the story: Why is everyone afraid of Medea? And why is she driven to do what she does? (If you don’t know already, you won’t hear it from me). A woman jilted is far too domestic an explanation. But Medea is a woman like no other: she made decisions of battle, of slaughter, of blood. Jason doesn’t abandon a lover, he abandons a comrade in arms. Imagine a version of Bonnie and Clyde where he wants to cross sides and live in the house with the picket fence.
Helen McCrory’s Medea is the most alive creature you will ever meet. The moral argument bends to her will: death is an adventure coming from a hand like hers. Inquisitive and restless, she interrogates herself harder than anyone else can. Every thought, sharp and uncompromising, is catching her by surprise. She is in constant dialogue with herself, a creature of fierce discourse and fiercer action.
Danny Sapani’s Jason has already betrayed himself and the knowledge is eating him from the inside, not unlike the revenge Medea takes on his new bride. His semblance of control is tremulous until it is no more. Dominic Rowan is Aegeus, the only friend Medea has. It’s a small role but compelling: the one moment when Medea has a different future, another life, a joyful soul. It’s the intimacy of friends played to perfection.
The chorus – led by a radiant Michaela Coel – is a protective shield around Medea, protecting her from impertinent eyes. A group of women, who see but can’t act, they are an army of spectres, flickering in and out of sight. Much has been made about the music written by Goldfrapp: every note contains the anticipation of every other, fulfilling a prophecy of its own.
The set, designed by Tom Scutt, creates two world in an unforced use of the Olivier stage. Much of the stage is taken by an open space – part of a derelict house – occasionally punctuated by threadbare furniture and invaded by the forest outside. Is this the natural world swallowing the man-made structure? Is this Medea’s law asserting its dominance over men? In contrast, Creon’s palace is beautiful, elevated but fading into the background, a world of smoke and mirrors and ghosts.
Despite the magnificence of individual elements, it’s the unity and clarity of vision that makes its mark: on the precipice of a fiery world, we tremble with envy and fear. To be there or not to be there. That is the question.
* I initially wrote “the new National theatre production of Medea” until I discovered this is the first time the National Theatre has staged the play. Which is hard to believe.