For me, autumn always feels like the start of a new year. Maybe it’s because my birthday’s at this time of year, maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in an academic mindset, maybe it’s because the start of a new season in the performing arts world… But for whatever reason, it’s that time of year again – and for my first post-Edinburgh review, I’m talking Greek tragedy. Specifically, a Euripidean tragedy centred on the desperate acts of a woman seeking revenge on her husband. This is the National Theatre’s first ever production of Medea.
Now, before I get started on the production itself, I want to say something about NT Live’s broadcast. The introductory film explains that Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) has left his wife Medea in order to remarry. Fine. It also reveals that, in revenge, Medea kills her children – this wasn’t a spoiler for me personally, but I wonder just how many people in the audience had the ending ruined for them by one sentence. After all, the work of Greek playwrights is hardly as ingrained in the cultural consciousness as, say, Romeo and Juliet. Some audience members will read ahead before a show and familiarise themselves with a story, others prefer it to watch it unfold as new – revealing so much before the curtain has even risen removes this element of choice. Even the synopsis on the paper programme isn’t explicit about Medea’s ‘appalling revenge.’ In a similar vein, there was too much rehearsal footage in the film – with sound – revealing crucially dramatic moments. NT’s social media campaign was lacking too – there were no reminders to tweet and the only time I saw #Medea was as I left the cinema, in tiny print on the bottom of the programme. Compared to the hefty Twitter campaign that accompanies each Royal Opera House live screening, the National Theatre don’t look very clued up.
But that’s enough complaining. Because the production itself is impressively dark, eerie and intense. The news that there would be no interval to the 90 minute piece initially made me groan, but in hindsight I completely see the point – it allows for a gradual build to the dramatic climax, echoing Medea’s own claustrophobic sense of impending doom. Helen McCrory is fantastic in the lead role, portraying a complex woman who is torn apart by her own emotions. She is frightening yet surprisingly pitiable. She cries and screams, but occasionally cracks a bitter joke. She cries out to the gods to strip her of female weakness, echoing Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here,’ yet uses her feminine attributes to manipulate the characters around her. Most crucially, McCrory portrays a Medea who is sane – a Medea who comes to the decision to kill her children because she has been run into a corner by her own thoughts and emotions. The moment of the murder is the high point of the play: a slow-building storm breaks, the music becomes overpoweringly loud, bright lights catch the trees at the back of the stage and form shadows, and the swings Medea’s sons have left are still moving as she walks slowly and resolutely offstage, clothed all in white… When she reappears with the boys’ bodies, they are zipped up in bloodied sleeping bags, which is both a sinister image and a practical solution to the problem of portraying dead bodies realistically.
This production includes a Chorus, a decision faithful to the play’s Greek origins. Made up of 13 women who initially appear as women of Corinth visiting Medea, they wear matching dresses which grow gradually dirtier and more tattered. They are onstage for most of the piece, watching over Medea from the side of the stage, the stairs above, and the upper level where Jason’s wedding scene takes place. Their voices are interchangeable and representative of the whole. Oh, and they twitch a lot. I found this extremely distracting and couldn’t see the point, particularly when the spasms that accompany their speech eventually become full movement routines. Granted, this kind of movement must be difficult and is well executed, but I don’t believe it adds anything to the central darkness of the play. More crucially, I can’t understand the exact function of the Chorus. When Medea first contemplates murder, there is dialogue between them – the Chorus tell her they ‘wouldn’t blame her’ if she goes through with it. So because they are all women and because they seem to condone her actions, I assumed that the Chorus are voices in Medea’s head, echoing the real conversation she has with the Corinthians. Yet when Jason comes to the house in the final scene, the Chorus intervene to tell him what Medea has done and he speaks back to them.
The play ends as it begins, with the Nurse figure directly addressing the audience. But instead of a long, moralising monologue, she simply asks what else there can be for Medea but silence and utter darkness. The lights snap off, severing the play’s action in a fittingly contemporary and dramatic style. It took me a long time to adjust to reality afterwards – and I honestly don’t know how I didn’t have nightmares.
I saw Medea broadcast live at The Cornerhouse (a first for me – it’s a lovely venue with super comfy seats) with my fellow MTA reviewer Lizz – her fantastic review can be found here.