N.B. This review is of a preview performance on 18 July. The show officially opens on 21 July.
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
18 July 2014
runs until 4 September 2014
Just ten days after Simon Russell Beale gave his final performance as King Lear on the Olivier stage, Helen McCrory takes on the role often labelled as the female equivalent in the title role in, unbelievably, the National Theatre’s first ever production of Euripides’s powerful and unsettling tragedy, famed for its act of infanticide.
Ben Power’s new translation of the text is powerful yet essential, with flowery rhetoric replaced by dialogue that sears straight to the emotional core of the piece. It is in tune with an elemental theme that pervades the whole piece, with director Carrie Cracknell drafting in choreographer Lucy Guerin and the “theatrical dark art” (The Guardian) of contemporary dance to bring out the supernatural, other-worldly aspect of Greek tragedy. Although I couldn’t always translate the exact inspirations and intentions of Guerin’s sometimes pulsating, sometimes mechanical choreography, it certainly heightens the sense that something greater is controlling these mortal figures. Particularly effective are the snapshots of dance representing Kreusa’s tortured death, performed in a half light by Oliver Award-nominated dancer Clemmie Sveaas. Tom Scutt’s set design ties together the worlds of supposed man-made security and the wilds of the earth, as the below the civilised wedding venue above, a dark and eerie forest stretches backwards, appearing to swallow up the characters who exit the stage that way. The whole piece is haunted by the soundtrack of Goldfrapp’s will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, which suitably raises and drops the tensions without intrusion.
Helen McCrory takes on the role with determination and bravery, her bitterness and boldness leaving us with no doubt that she will eventually undertake the revenge she has sworn. She switches rapidly from resentment to fear, from hysteria to deviousness, so rapidly that it leaves you unsteady ground, but conveys the strange combination of instability and resolve that leads her to carry out her unspeakable act. It is surely one of the most difficult roles to portray: how to make a woman who cruelly murders the innocent Kreusa and then her own children engaging and sympathetic? As Medea reminds us, infanticide is perceived as not only the most horrific of crimes, but fundamentally against nature. She is, therefore, an unnatural woman, as many would have it. But in so many other respects she shows the same jealousy, anger, tenderness and love that any mother and any abandoned wife – and indeed, any man, as Medea only uses her femininity when it suits you rather than letting it rule her – may feel. This production does a strong job in showing the audience that this “unnatural” act is not such an impossibility as we may think.
The Chorus are also ingeniously used to create this environment that is somehow volatile but always heading in one direction, as are the framing speeches of the Nurse (Michaela Coel) that create the sense of Fortune’s wheel turning, unstoppable and unchangeable. Yet I couldn’t help feel that Coel could reach further in bringing out the soul in Power’s text, and sometimes the rhythm of her dialogue seems rather odd and stilted. Similarly, Danny Sapani puts in a solid turn as Jason but seems rather distance, and I sensed there are greater emotional depths to be explored if he pushes his performance further. On the other hand, Dominic Rowan is a confident Aegeus and inhabits a compelling moment of companionship for Medea; it’s a shame the play cannot allow him more stage time.
All in all, there are moments that could reach greater heights if all the cast come up to the same level that the aesthetics of this production create; yet this is still a moving, evocative and disturbing rendition and McCrory’s haunting, punishing performance is one to remember.
The National Theatre’s interviews with director Carrie Cracknell and actress Helen McCrory offer a great insight into the inspirations and thinking behind this production: