Written by Theatre


Medea at the National is a superb new production of Euripes’ classic tale – first performed in 431 BC. Medea (Helen McCrory) has separated from her husband Jason (Danny Sapani), and been banished to some far flung part of Greece with her two sons. Jason is to marry the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. She’s mad with rage and wants revenge.

It’s just a question of what she’ll do to get her revenge – and how far it’ll take her.

From the opening scene where we see Medea howling and screaming in the woods, we can see that all is not well with her. And it’s the beautiful shifts in mood and tone that give rise to a schizophrenic Medea. She is sometimes calm, but something will anger her and her blood boils up.

It’s all beautifully played by McCrory who puts everything into her part. It must be an incredibly demanding piece to perform night after night. The play may only run 90 minutes, but by the end McCrory looks completely drained.

The chorus are a fascinating part of this story – part essential to Greek theatre, but part watching audience. As Medea’s revenge, and madness begin to take shape, the chorus begins to be culpable. Why did they not stop Medea doing what she was going to do? We can sometimes look at ourselves today and say the same thing. A tragedy in slow motion being watched under our own gaze.

There’s a dance element to this production, with the chorus and others bringing some abstract movement to the piece. The strange jerkiness in some of their movements was odd, but perhaps indicative of the mixed up world we were in.

The set is a terrific rundown 70s building – concrete and open – with a room above it that acts primarily as the setting for the wedding of Jason and Glauce. Through the back are the looming woods where Medea goes to find peace from her inner anguish.

I also loved the music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, but then I’m a big Goldfrapp fan anyway. However, it definitely added to the atmosphere and it worked well with the dance elements of the play.

In the shocking final act – this play may be getting on for 2,500 years old, but I won’t be the one to spoil it for you – a woman next to me put her hands over her face as though in a horror film.

This is all about McCrory and her tour-de-force.

Medea is on at the Olivier until 4 September when it’ll be broadcast to cinemas as part of NTLive. And there’s a great piece in The Guardian with McCrory and Diana Rigg relating how they each play(ed) the part.