Review – Medea at the National Theatre starring Helen McCrory (2014)

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(Photo by Jason Bell)

The announcement that the National Theatre would be staging Medea for the first time filled me with uncertainty as to whether I wanted to see another version of this quite traumatic play so soon after Mike Bartlett’s modern adaptation starring Rachel Stirling. However the announcement of Helen McCrory’s casting made the decision for me and resulted in me seeing two of the strongest performances by women currently on stage in London in the same week (the first being Gillian Anderson down the road at the Young Vic).

Euripides’ tale is certainly not an easy one to contemplate, as it forces its audience to consider one of the most horrifying acts imaginable – whether a mother really could consider murdering her own children. Medea is not just a woman however – she is a warrior. She has killed for love in the past and people do fear her. Now the man she did all of that for, Jason, has deserted her for a younger bride, leaving her in a state of heightened emotion and desperation.

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo by **
Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo by Hubert Smith

Over the course of the production’s 90 minutes the audience witnesses first hand Medea’s struggle to understand his betrayal and her growing need for revenge on him and his new bride, Kreusa, daughter of the King of Corinth Kreon.

There is much to enjoy about this new version by Ben Power, directed by Carrie Cracknell (last at the National Theatre for the excellent Blurred Lines). The staging is very good (particularly if sitting in the raised winged side sections of the Olivier), as Tom Scutt takes full advantage of the height available in the National’s largest space through a split level set. Medea’s home, which she shares with her nanny and sons is on the lower level, complete with outdoor forest, lending an eerie creepiness to the setting. Above, is the world her husband has left her for, as the King prepares for the wedding celebration of his daughter to Jason. I loved that this world was never clearly seen, always witnessed through a thin gauze covered window, starkly separating the two worlds of the story. It also meant moments could occur simultaneously, most effective when, as Medea talks to us, we see the scene unfold above as her revenge on those who have hurt her begins.

The split level staging is very effective. Photo by **
The split level staging is very effective. Photo by Hubert Smith

The music, created by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp is also superb. It suits the disturbing, uncomfortable mood of the play perfectly and, when coupled with the unique dance movements of the chorus of women watching over Medea’s actions, becomes both beautiful and also quite unsettling. In part it almost feels as if you are watching someone’s dream (or perhaps nightmare).

I did however find the setting a little strange. It’s modern, but the home of Medea feels as if it’s from maybe the 60s in style. This doesn’t really matter for the production until her children are given modern technology to play with, which I found quite jolting. It didn’t seem to fit the period and so took me out of the world of the play momentarily.

I did also think some of the acting seemed a bit stilted from Danny Sapani, who plays Jason, although this may perhaps be exactly how he is meant to feel to you, when compared with such a strong character as Medea.

As Streetcar found my focus centring on Gillian Anderson, by the very nature of the story, this play’s driving force is that of Medea herself and Helen McCrory is absolutely brilliant in the role. She commands your attention and is completely believable as we watch Medea make decisions that will have such a irreparable impact on all those around her. She is in moments humorous, sarcastic, angry and crucially also able to convincingly convey Medea’s moments of both vulnerability and strength. We follow her as she makes decisions out of her desperate need to cause Jason the same pain as he has caused her. Despite a brief moment of hope provided by her old friend Aegeus (played very well by Dominic Rowan), during which it seems a new life is possible for her, there is an inevitability hanging over the world of Corinth, something which is enhanced by the opening monologue by Michaela Coel who plays Medea’s servant and nanny, who sets the tone of unease from the beginning.

Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory. Photo by Hubert Smith
Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory as Jason and Medea with their children. Photo by Hubert Smith

I have always been a fan of Helen McCrory (who I last saw on stage in the wonderful The Last of the Haussmans) and she is truly superb in this production. There may have been aspects I did not like, but despite these misgivings, I would not have wanted to miss seeing such a powerful performance. The Best Actress category during next year’s awards season will certainly be crowded!

Medea continues its run at the National Theatre until 4th September 2014. Its final performance on 4th September will also be screened as part of NT Live. For more details visit the National Theatre’s website http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/medea

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