Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: Medea

I do love a bit of depressing Greek tragedy, don’t you?

Yes? Good. You should check out Medea at the National then.

The plot of Medea is a textbook Greek tragedy. Medea falls madly in love with Jason (of Argonauts fame), marries him and murders her family to keep him happy. Funnily enough, the latter part doesn't go unnoticed and Medea and Jason flee into exile - Medea bearing Jason two sons in the meantime - eventually ending up in Corinth where Jason promptly leaves his wife for the resident Princess. Medea doesn’t take this fantastically well, and decides that the best way to get revenge on Jason is to murder first his new bride (via a poisoned gown that also takes out the King) and then her own children. Lovely.

As that brief synopsis suggests this is not the play to see if you want a light evening out (in which case try Great Britain since it’s playing in the same building) but it is an excellent production and well worth a little of your time. And it is only a little - the play positively zips along in a shade over 90 minutes (no interval) with excellent direction ensuring that it doesn’t feel rushed. This is a new version of Euripides’ ancient play and the translation and tone are excellent; thoughtful, horrific and frightening plausible. The production looks fantastic too - on a split level stage with Medea’s home and garden (completely with really unsettling empty swings) downstairs, Corinth upstairs where a clever use of slightly opaque glass and lighting means that your view of what’s taking place is always a little obscured.

It’s rare that I’d mention the music in a ‘straight’ play but the score here is a) important and b) really, really good. Written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp (yes, that one) the score is an electro-infused joy that pulses through the production, driving the action on to its inevitable conclusion. In key scenes the music is so integral that it almost feels like a character in its own right. Seriously, seriously good stuff. I’d love to buy the soundtrack.

The music is also important as it backs a number of dance sequences in the show. Yes, dance sequences. Unlikely, but true. It’s probably overcooking it a bit to say that these sequences constitute interpretive dance but they’re certainly very modern and very otherworldly. At first I thought I didn’t like them but on reflection they definitely contribute to the overall tone of the unnatural that pervades throughout the play and as such are actually quite effective. I doubt it’ll be to everyone’s taste but, after some mulling, it ultimately worked for me.

As high as the production values are, the reason why you should definitely go and see Medea is Helen McCrory’s extraordinary central performance. She is quite simply superb. Medea is not by nature a hugely sympathetic character - although the way she is treated by Jason is shitty, I’m still inclined to think murdering four people is a bit much - McCrory makes you feel for her. She also makes you feel with her, which is much harder. It’s a brilliantly judged and nuanced piece of acting; frighteningly unhinged, coolly calculating and heartbreakingly sad all at once. One of the standout things about the plot of the play is that all other Greek tragic heroines-turned-murderers are given some kind of cosmic or magical justifications for their actions. Medea has none of this and sets out her reasons quite clearly and plainly for the audience to hear and understand. It would be very easy to write Medea off as evil or suffering from some kind of madness (just as it is for Lady Macbeth, with an obviously much stronger case in the end), but McCrory makes it much more difficult to reach these lazy conclusions. Her Medea is a fully realised character and acted impeccably. One of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen for a long time, possibly the best from someone whose surname isn’t Branagh.

Of the rest of the cast it’s only really Danny Sapani’s Jason who gets a considerable amount of stage time and he’s very good too, especially in the post-murder scenes. He is exceptionally good as the angry, grieving husband and father and the rawness of his grief, sometimes howling sometimes quiet, in these scenes is genuinely upsetting. His pre-murders Jason is suitably ambiguous - I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that he’s only acted in his family’s best interests but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Chorus (a large group in this case) are also used frequently, especially in the dance sequences which they manage well, and are generally very good as the conscience of the play. Also, Joyce Barnaby off of Midsomer Murders is in it which is just cool. I bet the Midsomer Parva AmDram Society have never done this one!

Medea actually opens at the National tonight and runs until September 4th (getting the NT Live treatment on its closing night). It’s not an easy watch, but it is a great one and Helen McCrory’s performance is not to be missed. Top stuff.

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