The Almeida reinvents the challenging Euripidean tragedy and places Medea in a contemporary context with Jason, an actor, divorcing Medea, a writer, and the consequences that follow her desire to take revenge. Skye Heaton-Heather reviews.
Modernising a Greek classic can breathe new life into these ancient stories and Rupert Goold’s Medea captivates the brutal realities people face when involved in a break-up which resonates in any age. However, this new version written by Rachel Cusk falls short at the last hurdle and leaves the viewer feeling deflated and wanting more after the immersive intensity of the first two thirds.
The choices women make as wives, mothers and as individuals bears scrutiny and this new production, completing The Almeida’s season of Greek plays, grabs the attention of the audience with its modern take of a husband leaving his wife, Medea, for a younger model. At one point, she screams ‘shame on you’ as her soon-to-be-ex husband exits. This made me recall ephemera from political marches and hit home that a marriage or partnership can have political dimensions where the children, unwittingly, become pawns in a grown-up game. Kate Fleetwood plays a writer in the lead role with intelligent precision that drives the momentum of the plot with a range of liberated rage, from the intense to the distilled. She cuts through the oppressive atmosphere created by her insensitive mother figure with analytical monologues and soliloquies which, at times, are directed at the audience. This clever technique leaves the spectators shifting uncomfortably in their seats as one is confronted by a forceful Medea who elicits questions from us on our involvement in the play.
There is no doubt that Fleetwood has the capacity to carry this role from beginning to end, without an interval, and is nicely complemented by the well-cast Richard Cant as Aegeus who provides a lighter note to the play’s ferocity as her camp showbiz agent. As does the chorus who comment on Medea’s wavering stability whilst dressed up as the stereotypical yummy-mummies of Islington ilk. Although some might find their caricature clichéd, the point is that they too confess dissatisfaction with their seemingly perfect lives and who dream to not have maternal responsibilities – even just for a single day. This satirising of society adds poignancy even when it’s overtly portrayed and as a social comment, it cannot easily be ignored. Michele Austin does a more-than-suitable job as the Brazilian cleaner, weaving tales of revengeful women that entices Medea’s interest as she contemplates her options as her divorce draws on. This is a play about divorce – one must relinquish any prejudgment based on knowledge of Euripides’s plot because this is present day pressure – at its most oppressing and engaging.
Rachel Cusk does a grand job at shaping this classic into a modern and realistic setting and as her first foray into writing for the theatre, she delivers concise and natural dialogue. A split appears in the play’s personality precisely when the Tiresias-like messenger appears to narrate the denouement dressed as half man, half woman. Having carefully constructed a realistic and mesmirising portrayal of a woman reacting to society’s expectations as a mother during a relationship breakdown, the ending jolts as the messenger condenses the conclusion with exaggerated and theatrical gestures. This absurd manifestation fits with the tone of the chorus because it is offered to us alongside the information that Medea has abandoned her children. This causes the ending to feel awkward and rushed. The set, at this point, transforms artistically from a stark, modern flat expanding into a vast mountainous backdrop where the scope of possibility is as vast as the snowy peaks.
Updating a Greek tragedy to the modern age is no mean feat and this is an excellent production in many respects but for it truly to have been daring, maybe it could have changed its social setting so that the destruction that Medea wreaks on the new partner and her children would have been plausible and satisfying. Yet as it stands, in modernity’s LED-glare, it is an audacious move by skilled practitioners that allows a modern audience to question whether the content we are watching is misogynistic or feminist in essence. The debate continues at The Almeida until November 14th where Theatre and Performance, English Literature and Drama students can witness a text they are studying on the stage where £10 tickets are available.