Medea by Euripides, written nearly two and a half millennia ago, is the archetypal revenge tragedy, and the ultimate portrait of the inner life of a murderer. Whether presented traditionally (a rare occurrence these days) or in this modern-dress staging, in a new translation by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre of Great Britain, the play possesses an inherent power to move audiences, and inflict a wave of catharsis that left many in tears at the performance I attended last night.
To review the basic plot, Medea and her children have been abandoned by her husband Jason after the family moved to Corinth. Jason has found a new love, the young daughter of King Kreon, and is about to marry her. Meanwhile Kreon has banished Medea since he genuinely fears her. Medea begs that she be allowed to stay for one more day. This is all the time she needs to fashion a chilling revenge that includes the killing of Kreon and his daughter as well as the slaughter of her own children: a ghastly decision that she knows will forever torment Jason for as long as he lives.
In the title role, Helen McCrory presents us with a modern portrait of a scorned, jealous woman. Dressed in a tank top and cargo pants, nervously rolling up and only half-smoking a cigarette, she could be one of the thousands of abandoned single mothers who are having trouble making ends meet. However, when she changes into a white outfit, a costume that recalls a traditionally staged performance, and fashions her horrific revenge, the real Medea, as conceived by the author, pushes through. Ms. McCrory possesses a dark voice, and is able to command a powerful fury which often erupts with a volcanic intensity. She commands the stage when she is preparing a lethal gift for Jason's new bride, and especially at the conclusion of the play when she carries the bodies of her dead children into a windswept, smoky, dark wilderness.
Danny Sapani gives a memorable performance as Jason, a man who loves his two sons, and is only marrying in order to advance his social status. The rest of the cast is generally good, especially Dominic Rowan, in his brief scene as Aegeus, the King of Athens, who brings the only light of hope for Medea by offering her sanctuary in his kingdom. The chorus is a nimble group of thirteen women who dance, gyrate, and generally look spooky as they slink all over the stage to the music of Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, their primitive-sounding, moody score is a memorable addition to this production.
Medea will be broadcast live from the Olivier Theatre to cinemas around the world on September 4 at 7pm. I urge you not to miss it.