Mad or bad? Helen McCrory as Medea. Source: Alastair Muir for The Telegraph
Mad or bad? Helen McCrory as Medea. Source: Alastair Muir for The Telegraph

dir. Carrie Cracknell, trans. Ben Power
National Theatre
Screened live in cinemas on 4th September 2014 (I watched at the Cornerhouse, Manchester)

In many of the photographs of the National Theatre’s production, Helen McCrory’s face is caught in a certain light that makes her look as mystical and otherworldly as they come. The pictures seem to capture an eerie intensity in her eyes – mad, powerful, murderous. But in the short film which precedes the live screening of Medea, McCrory tells us that she wants the audience in no doubt that Medea is sane. In motion, she belies the photography – McCrory’s Medea is a stunning and rounded portrait of a desperate woman. From the moment we first hear her deranged screams, to when she staggers into view for a final time, dragging the corpses of her children, the many shades of her performance carry the audience through 90 minutes of escalating tension. Whether manipulating the various male characters by feigning powerlessness, exploring the depths of her furious grief, or plotting punishments for the faithless Jason, McCrory expresses a perfect balance between a performance that is nothing but wild passion, and one that swings from mood to mood without much depth. Her roiling emotions are always there, simply channelled in different ways as the play goes on.

The set is mostly some sort of dreary 1970s flat, all shades of brown and peeling wallpaper, but with a gauzy, misty balcony above where Jason dances with his new bride in slow motion, wafting her beautiful young body around like a puppet, onto which Medea is never allowed to ascend. Her domain instead is the forest that opens out from the back of the stage, where she eventually commits her worst crime, and where she disappears at the end of the play, heaving her sons’ corpses onto her shoulders. In the original, ancient Athenian production of the play, Medea flew off in a chariot provided by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios: she was beyond humanity and so became godlike. In Carrie Cracknell’s vision, Medea is certainly beyond humanity, but the nurse sums up what her future holds in a brief final speech – silence and darkness.

I was utterly sold on the ending and the interpretation of the play, in Ben Power’s unobtrusive translation (often the best thing a translation can be!), and the Chorus are effectively ambiguous, sometimes seeming to egg Medea on, and other times playing the guests at Jason’s wedding, celebrating Medea’s betrayal. Their blank faces, even when performing the twitchy, disjointed-looking movement pieces, are a detached contrast to Medea’s raging emotions, reminding us just how alone she is in her struggles. Of the supporting cast, sadly it’s Danny Sapani’s Jason who doesn’t feel right to me – I can’t quite believe that this sturdy, grey-bearded man could be so naive as to cross Medea, and the possibility of sexual tension between them, which we are shown with a kiss, needs to be more electric. The music is mostly effective: though a bit too obtrusive at times, it is devastatingly powerful in the final scenes. McCrory’s performance, and particularly her performance of the play’s gruesome climax, is rightly the tour de force at the centre of the production – and she takes us all with her on a hell of a ride.