New version by Ben Power
National Theatre Live
Directed by Carrie Cracknell
Broadcast to cinemas 4th September 2014, 19.00
Helen McCrory as Medea
Danny Sapani as Jason
Michaela Coel as Nurse (who is Prologue / Epilogue)
Martin Turner as Kreon, King of Corinth
Dominic Rowan as Aegeus, King of Athens
Clemmie Sveass as Princess Kreusa
Joel McDermott, Jude Pearce as Medea’s sons
It’s a while since I’ve seen Greek tragedy, and this is (I think) the first fully modern-dress one I’ve seen. I loved the text … updated beautifully. Years ago, I had to compare four or five texts of Oedipus Tyrannus and it is fascinating to see how modern you can make a play written in the fifth century BC. The genius of Ben Power’s version is that it all seems real rather than pumped up melodrama or grand opera. He changes the ending, but that’s all for the better in a modern day setting.
The set: wedding above, forest inner stage, Medea’s house around sides
The set is in three sections. The front and sides is Medea’s house, tatty, run-down, gone to seed a bit. The kids lie around watching TV, fiddling with electronic games. We get the weariness and lack of control of a single parent with two boys.
Then at the back, there is a stylized, terrifying forest with a modern, glass-walled building floating above it, which serves as the palace / wedding venue as well as the place for the orchestra and at times the chorus. It works superbly. We only see Kreusa, Jason’s intended bride, up on high … she has a sexy dance with Jason, and then she has to die in agony in her poisoned cloak … all seen above the action.
The set lit for the forest
The chorus speak in single lines in turns, not chorally. They’re all women. They first appear, varied in ages, appearance and clothing in outdoor clothes carrying yellow 50s frocks over their arms. Later they change into these (or more likely just take their coats off), becoming more uniform. They’re spaced around the whole set, rather than standing like a symphony orchestra chorus in a group. Their ranks include dancers. The choreography when they dance is frightening, angular, disjointed, jerky, juddering, in other words totally brilliant. The music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp matches the brilliance. It’s original, and overpowering.
By now it’s clear that I was hugely impressed and more than annoyed that I hadn’t seen it live at the National Theatre. As befits Greek tragedy it’s short … 90 minutes with no interval. NT Live is getting better and better at filming. As ever, you gain in the close ups revealing the actors’ performances in vivid detail, you lose in seeing the stuff the TV director has not focussed on going on around the focussed action. It’s the necessary compromise of the filmed theatre concept.
Medea early on as distressed soon-to-be single parent
The review has to focus on Helen McCrory’s spectacularly strong interpretation of Medea, the woman spurned who will kill her own children to revenge herself on Jason, her hero husband who is trading her in for a younger and better-connected model. There is a lot in the Euripides about the position of foreigners in Greek city states, and in Corinth, Jason and Medea are foreigners, so like slaves have very limited rights. Jason claims he is marrying the princess to secure their safety and the safety of the sons. I liked the fact that Medea is white, Jason is black, and the kids are both mixed race. That’s as it would be, and there’s no confusing “color blindness.”
Aegeus, the King of Athens, an old friend, drops in to visit with presents for the kids and a bottle of Pinot Grigio and offers Medea sanctuary in Athens … though she’ll have to make her own way there. In return she’ll use her witchcraft to overcome Aegeus and Mrs Aegeus’s inability to conceive a little prince or princess. By the way, I’m trying to get over an inbuilt prejudice my old drama teacher had against translating tyrannus as “King” which sounds medieval Europe rather than a “tyrant” or “ruler.”
Medea and Jason enjoy a drink. He’s fooled.
It’s extremely hard to look beyond the sheer power of McCrory’s deeply-wronged Medea. Her wonderfully expressive and well-structured face helps, but we have to admit that she has unpleasant previous: she slit her dad’s throat and sliced up her brother in order to ingratiate herself with Jason in the first place. She used magical powers to help him win the Golden Fleece. It’s clear that King Creon is terrified of her, and by killing the princess and King Creon with a magically drugged cloak, she proves they had every reason to be. Also Jason seems a reasonable sort of bloke when he explains himself. Well, nice enough in a self-justifying celeb politico sort of way. Medea, in contrast is duplicitous and convincingly so.
Medea below, Kreusa in poisoned cloak above
The progression of a Greek Tragedy is a bit like a modern manual on giving presentations at conferences. Tell the audience what you’re going to do. Do it. Then tell them what you have done. Or in other words, it’s fate. It’s ordained. The chorus carry this through. Another aspect of Greek tragedy is that the nasty bloody stuff like Medea slaughtering her sons (or Oedipus putting out his eyes), happens off stage.
It’s a fast-paced, powerfully directed and acted piece. The music, choreography and acting performances on a fabulous set mean your attention cannot drift for a second.
A wonderful moment: Medea takes SmartPhone pic of Jason with his sons
Medea’s liquorice paper roll ups aren’t in Euripides, but it suits character.
One small downside of filming in close up is when Medea takes a knife to the carpet to reveal her hiding place. or even gate to the underworld beneath. In the theatre she would appear to be slashing the carpet. In the camera from above we see very clearly that it’s a separate square of carpet.