Medea, National Theatre: “Tigress, not a woman”

Helen McCrory fascinates as a damaged and alien Medea in a ragged and brilliant production, says Philip Womack

A scene from Medea. Credit Ricard Hubert Smith
A scene from Medea at the National Theatre. Credit Ricard Hubert Smith

Euripides’ Medea is a play that continues to fascinate and horrify in equal measure. Medea’s actions – to kill her own children, her love rival, and King Creon of Corinth, in revenge for being passed over by Jason in favour of the King’s daughter – seem to us so alien and remote that we can only watch, aghast.

The National Theatre’s production sees Medea as a refugee, and casts Corinth as a humid, sweltering place of decaying splendour. The stage indicated Medea’s apartness: her domain was the ground floor, with paint peeling and no furniture; above, behind glass, were the royal family, preparing the wedding of Jason and the princess.

Helen McCrory stars as Medea at the National Theatre. Credit Ricard Hubert Smith
Helen McCrory stars as Medea at the National Theatre. Credit Ricard Hubert Smith

Helen McCrory’s Medea was powerful: bitter and intelligent, she prowled about, giving the suggestion of something quite damaged and alien. The play is about the interaction of the civilised and the barbarian; Medea’s ancient magic against Jason’s rational modernity. And yet the production never quite emphasised that enough (although it began promisingly, with Medea hurling chairs about in the distance.) I think a modern audience needs that to be brought out; not to justify her actions, but to set them into context. Her children were a poignant presence on the stage: the play began with them lying, as if dead, watching TV. They were still for so long it began to be uncomfortable.

There were weak links. Michaela Coel’s nurse bookended the play, her voice and presence not quite strong enough to frame the tragedy. Jason, played by Danny Sapani, was a slightly seedy, cheque-book waving businessman, not the bold adventurer of legend. I didn’t believe that this was the man who just snatched the golden fleece from the jaws of a dragon, and who led a band of heroes including Hercules.

What was immensely effective was the chorus. When they first appeared, singing, above the stage, their eerie stillness was thrilling. Their movements took on terrible meaning as they shook and shivered, foreshadowing the death of the princess as she struggles in Medea’s poisoned dress.

In the Greek, Medea is carried off by the chariot of the sun-god. Perhaps this device is considered a too much for the 21st century, as this production removed it. But what it does do is show how separate Medea really is, as the grand-daughter of the sun. Here it was suggested, as she bore her sons’ bodies off stage into the swirling mists, that she had gone mad, and was hallucinating the light. I think this occludes a central plank of the play, which is that Medea acts in the full knowledge of what she does. She kills her children because she has to: she wants to annihilate Jason in the only way she can. She is a tigress, not a woman, and it is important to remember that. When she is removed by the sun-god, she has done the worst, and no worse can follow: the tragedy is ended. Allowing her to continue, mad, removes that sense of ending. Overall, however, the production had a stately, ragged brilliance.

Medea runs until 4 September 2014. For tickets and information, click HERE