Review: Medea (starring Helen McCrory), at the National theatre, Olivier stage

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

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.

Dominic Rowan (Aegeus) with Medea's children. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Dominic Rowan (Aegeus) with Medea’s children. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

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.

3 responses to “Review: Medea (starring Helen McCrory), at the National theatre, Olivier stage

  1. Pingback: Review – Medea at the National Theatre | tat

  2. I agree that Helen McCrory was superb – but otherwise I found this production very unsatisfactory. As so often with modern productions of Classical plays, I came away thinking: “The audience believe they have seen some Euripides, but they haven’t.” Changing the ending and the tone and the focus of “Medea”, in a “version” that is certainly not a translation, is as dubious as changing the ending of “King Lear” or making “The Taming of the Shrew” ironic or whatever – and “Medea” is a text six times as far removed in time from us and our values and sensibilities as anything of Shakespeare’s.

    I found myself reflecting on a curious peculiarity of the Olivier that I have noticed: that, while the critics may be “profoundly moved” &c &c &c by tragedies presented there, audiences are not. At the end of this “Medea”, as with “Othello” earlier in the year, as soon as the applause was truncated by the lights going up, everyone was laughing and chatting as if they hadn’t just heard a woman slaughter her children, or seen a man suffocate his wife. I find this mystifying, though maybe it bears out what (I think) Richard Eyre once said, that most people go to the National not to see a great production but “in order to have seen it”. The design of the Olivier is based on ancient Greek auditoria and yet its effect could hardly be more different: there is no sense of the audience as a single, self-aware community sharing in a profound cathartic experience.

    The National seems to work on the assumptions that the great classics of world theatre need to be presented there; that they need to be done justice to by great actors; that therefore they need to be presented in a huge auditorium in front of a large audience; but that, as most people would find the authentic values and tone and focus of the original dramas unappealing, they have to be “reworked” to suit modern tastes and sensibilities. What remained in this instance was arguably not much more than Euripides’ plot.

    And even there there was a problem. It seems very likely that his original audience did not know that Medea was going to kill her children – that this twist to the story was, in fact, an outrageous innovation by the ever-shocking Euripides. Whether there is any way round this today I don’t know, but it doesn’t help that the protagonist is always introduced as “the woman who murders her children”. The final chorus of the play does not say what the National’s “version” says, that everything inevitably ends in silence followed by darkness. In fact, it basically says: “You didn’t see that ending coming, did you? Life is full of unexpected outcomes!” So, even the “moral” of the story that today’s audiences go home with (if they are not too busy laughing and chatting to note a moral) is not the one Euripides intended.

  3. Pingback: Analysis of Professional Stage Actor: Helen McRory – vandhnabhanperformance

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