The National Theatre has never staged a production of ‘Medea’ before, and this version with minimalist set and modern dress is a short and snappy ninety minutes – quite a relief after my recent run of 3+ hour shows.
Euripides wrote the original play in 431 BC, and this new production is presented in a version by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell. It focuses on the tragic force of fate which drives the central character (played by Helen McCrory) to commit the ultimate sin of filicide, murdering her two small sons to gain revenge of their father, Jason, who has abandoned her to take a new wife, the daughter of the King.
Although some of the cast may be a little underpowered, especially Michaela Coel as the Nurse (I doubt her voice can reach the top tier of the Olivier), McCrory is on rip-roaring form as she plans her revenge while being so duplicitous in oozing charm to her ex-husband, prostrating herself before the King who plans to send her into exile, or playing the loving mother to her TV-watching, gadget-playing boys.
The chorus, led by Midsomer Murders actress Jane Wymark, build up the tension with their ticks and twitches leading into wild dancing, while of the three main male roles, Martin Turner is an imperious Kreon, Danny Sapani a curiously detached Jason, and Dominic Rowan an underused Aegeus.
Although the wedding sequences, seen through glass walls in the top of the set, are well-done, it is the closing moments you will remember – the off-screen screams of the boys as their mother approaches with a knife, Jason’s sense of loss as he realises his sons have been snapped away, and Medea’s final and literal shouldering of blame, heartbreaking as she eventually only achieves in destroying herself and all she holds dear. It’s in this sequence where McCrory reaches the pinnacle of this performance – I saw this play in 1992 with Diana Rigg and didn’t think it could be topped, but this final scene touched and appalled me in a way few performances have.
We have two emotional powerhouses going on in London at the moment, with McCrory’s Medea and Richard Armitage’s John Proctor in The Crucible. I highly recommend you try and see both.