Helen McCrory in Medea. Photo: Alistair Muir
The access to the Stage Door of the National Theatre from the riverfront is currently blocked, meaning that in order to enter you have to walk around the entire building, much of which is a literal building site. You make your way past colourful panels and promises of a bigger, brighter ‘NT Future’ before finally arriving at the east side of Denys Lasdun’s monolith. The National is now in its final stage of development works, and talking to Ben Power about his adaptation of Medea which has just opened in the Olivier, it strikes me that alongside this aesthetic overhaul, the building is also undergoing a somewhat less visible but just as radical shift in its programming.
“The thing that I think is fantastic,” Power enthuses as we watch over a glorious summer day on the Southbank from a fifth-floor window, “has been the emergence in the last three or four years of a generation of directors who can direct big plays on these stages.” Over the past few seasons, Nicholas Hytner and his associates – with Power included in their number – have begun to give ‘masterpieces’ to a new generation of directors, who include Polly Findlay, Joe Hill-Gibbons and Simon Godwin. “For the good of the next ten years, opening up those spaces to people who have got muscle to direct is important.”
Carrie Cracknell, whose credits include A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, Birdland at the Royal Court and The Shed’s production of Blurred Lines earlier this year, also belongs to this group as she now takes on Euripides’ tragedy in the National’s largest space with Helen McCrory in the title role. Power observes that this production – which is (“sharply contemporary but that doesn’t deny the primal, epic, supernatural power of the play”) “really feels like it’s a strongly feminist interpretation of the play, because of all the work that Carrie and Helen and the chorus and Lucy Guerin and Alison Goldfrapp have done”.
Why do theatre-makers keep returning to this play? Power suggests its popularity has something to do with the fact that “the play describes in acute medical detail stages of grief and stages of trauma – things that theory wasn’t able to deal with or articulate until the twentieth century. Euripides was dealing with it with such accuracy. And so it feels like – this play always feels like – it speaks to its audience.” The play, whose plot is “totally uncompromising,” follows – simply – a woman who believes she has been wronged by her husband and seeks revenge. “You as an audience are compromised by the level of investment she asks and gets of you, because she’s hugely empathetic and charismatic, and she wins you over just like she wins the chorus over.”
I wonder whether the different context – that Greek audiences and performers were required to watch theatre by law – has an effect on our reception of the play? “We can’t even begin to imagine how it must have felt to not make the choice, to attend by state dictat,” Power observes, but suggests that the most challenging thing for us to get our heads round is that in audience and cast alike, “everyone is a man. And the subversion of Euripides in writing these plays – and particularly this play – about female insurrection and women fighting back and the strength of women feels incendiary to me.”
Power is no stranger to adaptations, with years of experience working alongside Rupert Goold at Headlong and on Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespeare productions allowing him to understand that “it’s all about spirit and identifying authorial intention; working out what that artist is trying to do to people watching the play on the day that he’s written it for and trying to carry that in your own way to an audience today”. Interestingly, he suggests that the work he does on new plays as the National’s in-house dramaturg is very similar to the job of adapting classics as you find how an intention “can be carried to an audience as legibly as possible. That’s the same whether it’s Timon of Athens or The Effect.”
Though all the bright awnings will soon be dismantled to reveal a sparkly new NT, one aspect of the redevelopment plans that will remain for the indefinite theatre is the bright red box on the square outside the NT entrance. Power has been instrumental in the success of The Shed (now the temporary theatre, but launching with a new name when it reopens in the new year), and promises that it will only become “Sheddier” from 2015: “it should be more confident and be more itself”.
He admits that there have been a few productions in the past year which could have been performed in the Cottesloe, but others when the temporary space has been exactly the right venue; “those are the ones that I’m interested in really pursuing in terms of new voices and new forms, continuing to use it as a way of bringing work into this organisation which is properly challenging both for audiences who already come here and new audiences.”
What about the criticism that The Shed treads on the turf of venues like Battersea Arts Centre in programming new work? Power is quick to point out that “What Battersea and lots of organisations in this city and around the country are doing is incredible and vital,” but suggests that “what the National and the temporary theatre gives you is a platform to take some of that work and those artists and move them towards a slightly different kind of audience and exposure. It doesn’t get any more mainstream this place, and I’m not naive about that. There’s lots of artists that we and people who are working in the industry are aware of and celebrate who for the National Theatre audience or wider London audience are actually relatively unknown. And to offer an opportunity to put that work alongside, say, a production of Medea, feels really exciting.”
Before our chat ends, Power tells me that he, Rufus Norris and the other associates are deep in conversations about planning the new regime. And though he won’t give me any detail, he promises that “already in the conversations about the future programming of the larger spaces, you can see the impact of exposure to those artists and those forms over the past twelve months.” If that turns out to be true, we could be treated to one hell of an exciting season.
Medea is at the National Theatre from 14th July – 4th September 2014