Writer: Rachel Cusk (from Euripides)
Director: Rupert Goold
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Head bowed, her face hidden behind her long black hair, Medea listens to taunts meant to shame and humiliate her. An all-female chorus, gossiping and brandishing their maternal badges by clutching their offspring to their breasts, casts her out from among them, like an unclean leper. Medea’s “crime” is being one-half of a broken marriage and there can be no doubt that writer Rachel Cusk sees her torment as caused as much by social pressures imposed on her (and, by implication, on all women) as by any misdeed of her unfaithful husband, Jason.
Cusk’s 2012 book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation gives an honest account of the end of her own second marriage and, in making the title character in her adaptation of Euripides’ play a writer noted for her openness, she is sending out a very clear message that this Medea is personal. It is also modern in language and style, Ian MacNeil’s set of a chic townhouse restricting the action to confined spaces on two levels, contrasting completely with the palatial feel of Carrie Cracknell’s production at the National Theatre last year.
Adding another personal touch, Rupert Goold directs his own wife, Kate Fleetwood in the lead rôle. She has just spent the Summer sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar in High Society at the Old Vic, making her performance here notable for both her versatility and her virtuosity. This is a fierce Medea. prowling around her home like a caged lioness, looking at revenge against Jason with tunnel vision. Cusk’s explanation that the two children of the marriage represent “two broken promises, two lies. What are they without him (Jason)? Trash!” is made totally believable by Fleetwood and it paves the way for an understanding of the horrors that follow.
Jason in this version is not the man of power and ambition of Euripides, rather a very modern figure, an egotistical actor. His near indifference to his children puts into question why Medea could think that she would wound him by taking them from him, but Justin Salinger’s performance elicits sympathy, showing how he needs to escape the shackles of his wife’s possessiveness. The raw exchanges between the irreconcilable couple are impassioned shouting matches, projected with tremendous force by the two performances.
Goold’s production is strong on memorable visual images – the chorus dancing like witches around a cauldron as they dismantle the family home, Medea silhouetted against the night sky as she shovels dirt into an open grave. There are strong supporting performances too, most notably from Michele Austin as Medea’s cleaner, stoically accepting the rôle into which a woman is cast, and by Andy de la Tour as a cynical Creon, analysing coldly the consequences of his daughter having taken Jason from Medea.
The climax is muddled, suggesting one thing and then telling us another and, most critically, the writer diverges from Euripides in a way that tampers with the core element in the story. Nonetheless, her conclusion is chilling, serving as a stark reminder of the collateral damage resulting from marital warfare and highlighting the utter futility of seeking revenge. A curious epilogue, rendered by a half man/half woman seems set on diluting the strong gender bias of earlier scenes, but it does not really change the view that the perspective of Cusk’s Medea is, overwhelmingly, the female one.
Following an unflinchingly brutal Oresteia and a bizarre, gender-bending Bakkai, the Almeida’s three-play Greek Season comes to an end with this strikingly original Medea.
The relevance of ancient classics in the modern world has been demonstrated fully and,overall, the cycle has to be judged as a huge achievement.
Runs until 14 November 2015| Image Marc Brenner