The opening image of Carrie Cracknell’s production of Medea is arresting in its understatement. Two young boys are watching cartoons on the floor of a living room. One of them stands up and goes upstairs. As he passes the piano in the upstairs room, seen through a window, he plays a sequence of notes on it. Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp’s gothic trip hop soundtrack kicks in here and it is as if the fatal trajectory of Euripedes’ tragedy is set off like an automaton in this moment. The boy is Medea’s son and he is setting the course to his own destruction.
A lot has already happened by the time we get Medea’s first appearance in the play and Michaela Coel’s nurse has the unenviable duty of delivering this to the huge auditorium of the Olivier. When McCrory first appears as Medea, we find her chopping wood in the forest to the back of the house surrounded by mist. The Women of Corinth fill the room like a street full of pristine Stepford Wives and this “barbarian” woman comes in from her physical chores in slacks and a sleeveless top, looking muscular, capable, herself every bit the warrior.
What the production and McCrory’s interpretation of the tragic antiheroine emphasises is Medea’s unwillingness to accept the role of the passive wronged woman. She plays the victim when it suits her in order to get what she wants and we thrill in these moments to see her villainy, just as we might with Shakespeare’s Richard III or Marlowe’s Barabas.
The broadness of McCrory’s performance and the robotic Women of Corinth are placed in stark contrast to the various men in the play who give far more naturalistic performances. It’s an interesting decision that suggests a certain casual attitude with which they each hold her, with the exception of Toby Wharton’s attendant. Even while Danny Sapani’s Jason pleads his case to his former lover, he proffers a cheque like a politician dealing with a potential PR nightmare.
Dominic Rowan’s Aegeus hands out toys like the jovial uncle. It’s as if the rest of them are in a different play to McCrory and this ads to the sense that she exists in her own personal hell. The terrible action she does finally commit is an attempt to drag Jason with her into that hell, to make him feel what she feels. When Jason discovers what she has done and confronts her, he is the very picture of a man destroyed. For all his grief, all his disbelief though, he remains in the world of civilisation, the world of the rational, of the material. He gets up and walks off stage. Still human, still mundane, while Medea drags her dead boys into the dark misty wood that seems to now represent eternal damnation.
Read the Exeunt interview with Ben Power.