Monday, August 11, 2014

"Terrible things breed in broken hearts..."

People with any kind of breathing problems are advised to keep well clear of the Olivier Theatre on certain days until the start of September... their current production of Euripides' MEDEA might just finish you off.  It's rare to see a production of such brutal, in-your-face force that for a long time after I was still poleaxed.

At the climax of this intense production you could hear absolutely nothing in the auditorium, which believe me is rare in the coughing wards that pass for theatres these days and also a fine tribute to director Carrie Cracknell ratcheting up of the tension.

I have only seen the play twice before: the first was Pasolini's 1969 film version with Maria Callas in imperious form in her only non-operatic acting role and I saw Diana Rigg's award-winning turn at the Wyndhams in 1993.  However neither were as visceral as Cracknell's production.

On reflection, it's remarkable how few of the acknowledged great actresses have taken on this all-encompassing role - very odd.  Luckily Helen McCrory said yes when Cracknell asked her and she is giving a towering performance as Euripides' heroine.  Ah but is she a heroine? You have to decide.

Medea is the wife of Jason who managed to steal the Golden Fleece only after she provided the distraction of murdering her brother, something that would make most men think twice about marrying her but Jason does on his return to Corinth and they have two children.

However Euripedes' play - here in a pared-to-the-bone version by Ben Power - starts with Medea in shock having learnt that Jason is to marry the daughter of King Creon that day.  Creon visits her and tells her she is to be exiled, her children taken from her and given to Jason.  She hysterically begs for just one day before this is done which Creon and Jason reluctantly allow her.  In her despair she is visited by King Aegeus of Athens who has visited the nearby Oracle of Delphi to ask will he remain childless.  Medea tells him she can cure this by magic if he will allow her to live in Athens which he readily agrees to.

Having secured somewhere to live, Medea can now exact her terrifying revenge on Jason and Creon.  She has her children deliver a present to the wedding feast of a beautiful gown for the new bride to wear - only we know that Medea has soaked the dress in a sulphurous poison that will destroy whoever touches it.  Soon she hears that the bride was burnt to death along with Creon when he tried to tear it from his daughter's body and now Medea is ready for the horrific coup-de-grace to punish Jason- to kill their children.

As I said earlier, Helen McCrory is spellbinding as the desperate Medea.  This is no statuesque 'diva' performance, McCrory's Medea is visceral, frantic, driven, almost possessed by her fury.  The moments leading up to her killing her children were mesmerising as the balance of her mind went from mercy to murder, sometimes within seconds of each other.  If she was not before, this performance puts her at the top table.

Cracknell also elicits strong performances from Danny Sapani as the proud, unthinking Jason and Martin Turner as a cold-hearted Creon, embodying a heartless patriarchal ruler.  There is an interesting performance from Michaela Coel as the children's nurse, her sing-song delivery at first odd but then making for a naturalistic, non-showy, performance.

There is interesting use of the chorus, first seen as guests at the wedding who then are dotted around the stage watching the unfolding action, doing the usual chorus thing of saying "I wouldn't do that if I were you" then later saying "I told you not to do that".  My heart sank when at the climax of the piece they suddenly lapse into the usual anachronistic modern dance steps - nothing illustrates the depths of hatred and revenge than kicking your leg out and whirling around.  I was reminded of Miss Nicola Blackman calling such segments "ten dancers looking for the toilet with the light out". 

As I have said Carrie Cracknell's direction grips like a vice, there is nothing - apart from said modern dance routine - to distract from the relentless drive to Medea's triumph over the expectations of her role in life.  Ben Power's translation hasn't an inch of spare meat on it either.  I was surprised that the ending does not make it as clear as in the original that Medea is leaving to fly to Athens and freedom with her heavy load, here she just trudges off but I guess it wouldn't fit with the general mood of this particular production.

Tom Scutt's large set at first seemed like a run-down middle eastern hotel foyer but it becomes more interesting with the reveals of an upper function room to illustrate Jason's wedding reception and a creepy, misty and dense forest in the back.  I thought it interesting that the choice was made to show the usual offstage marriage of Jason but Medea's murderous acts are still judged to be experienced offstage.

Lucy Carter's brutal lighting again focuses the attention totally on the action and I was surprised how effective the sonic beats score by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory was, made all the more effective by bearing used sparingly.

The production is now sold out until the end of it's run in early September - is it me or are productions getting shorter and shorter runs at the National? - but there are still seats available on the day as well as the now-obligatory NT Live cinema showing, this will be filmed live interestingly on the production's last night.

MEDEA however - and McCrory's searing performance - are best experienced live and in the Olivier auditorium.

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