A new version by Rachel Cusk
Directed by Rupert Goold
Almeida Theatre, Islington
25th September to 14th November 2015
How do you solve a problem like Medea? She’s a mythological sticking-point, her gruesome story of obsession and betrayal climaxing with the slaughter of her own two children. How could a mother do such a thing? Rachel Cusk’s new adaptation of Euripides’ ancient play brings the question uncomfortably close to home. Gone is the high-handed speech-making of the original and in its place are “know what I means?” from a chorus of ‘yummy mummies’ in half Greek drapery, half jeans and jumpers. We open by watching Medea’s mother talk about the merits of grilled versus fried chicken. Cusk interweaves these lighter touches with plenty of the unfiltered rage, passion, desperation and darkness that makes up Euripides’ script.
Kate Fleetwood as Medea looks pallid and thin, stringy-haired, reduced to skin and bone and anger. Her performance is faultless, showing us all the pain and power of the destructive love she still harbours for Justin Salinger’s thoughtless, pompous Jason. The rest of the cast are equally strong, particularly Michele Austin, who is both unsettling and enticing to watch as Medea’s bloodthirsty cleaner.
The staging has all the grandeur of a modern tragic production – it shows many echoes of the National Theatre’s version, reviewed on this blog as an NT Live screening last year. A dark, sparse, two-level set opens out at the back to reveal a forbidding mountain landscape. The costumes have little touches of symbolism, such as a simple crown to show us Creon’s supremacy, or a fur-embellished jacket hinting at Jason’s pride and luxury. The soundscapes are as bleak and mysterious as the often-shadowy lighting.
But I’m not sold on this new interpretation of the play. Yes, bring Medea up to date: show us that the tragedy and abomination of her story has the same power to shock us now as it must have done in Ancient Greece. But do it properly – a real bloodbath, like the original – rather than resorting to the safety of metaphor. Here we see Medea ‘kill’ her husband’s new lover by destroying her reputation, and it’s unclear whether she really kills her children or drives them to such unhappiness that they kill themselves. It seems odd that, after sparing the life of the new lover, the adaptation does still kill off the boys: I expected their ‘deaths’ to be metaphors too.
While parts of the modernisation work well, particularly the chorus of cooing mums, at other times it’s rather baffling. At one point an actor appears as a spokesman of the gods, narrating the events of the next few years in rhyming couplets: an almost laughably bizarre interlude.
Yet it’s a memorable production, visually striking at times, with a full house of skilled performers. Just don’t think too hard about Euripides.