by Euripides; Adapted by Robinson Jeffers
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Soho Place, London
17th February 2023
The show under review today is a new production of an ancient play, the brutal tragedy Medea by Euripides, which is now playing at the Soho Place, the recently opened new West End theatre. The production is directed by Dominic Cooke, following on from his recent West End outing Good, which loyal listeners will know that we talked about with Dominic in episode 56 of the podcast.
There have been several productions of Medea in London in recent years, including the 2015 production at the Almeida with Kate Fleetwood in the title role, and more recently at the National Theatre with the late great Helen McCrory. For more background on Medea, including why a play written nearly two and half thousand years ago that features the horrific crime of filicide remains so compelling, you are welcome to listen to our episode on the play, where I had the privilege to talk with classical scholar Edith Hall about Euripides’s original and the National Theatre production.
In the new production Dominic Cooke chooses to use an adaptation by American poet Robinson Jeffers, written in 1947 when the chaos and horror of the second world war were all too fresh. It is a lucid and poetic version, which maintains a propulsive pace and a clear narrative – the tightly strung story is done in 90 minutes – while also retaining some of Euripides’ original philosophical discourse, as well as many moments of poetic phrasing and insight.
Dominic Cooke sets the play in the round on a simple circle of stone paving, Medea’s world reduced to an elemental prison. As witnesses in the round, we become members of the Greek chorus asked to judge the events, and are even appealed to directly by Medea as she makes her ferocious case for vengeance as justice. The scripted chorus comprises three women who are planted with us in the audience, which affirms our casting as the public of Corinth, but for me lacked the power that a larger chorus of female voices provides, as it did in the National theatre production.
The set also includes a single concrete stairwell into an unseen basement, from which Sophie Okonedo’s first words as Medea are heard: “Death, death, death”, which she invokes in grief, a wish for herself and her transgressors, but also chillingly pre-figuring the fate of her own children. Okonedo is completely commanding, mesmerizing in both moments of calm fury, and in outbursts of vicious rage and profound grief. She maintains a calculating, self-possession, while also overwhelmed by the mania of her anger and pain. Her defiance is predicated on the fact that she is used to winning, partly through the use of her exceptional powers; after all she has previously vanquished many foes in saving Jason’s life, and faced down hostility as an immigrant in her new-found home in Corinth. We believe her when she tells us with complete conviction that “no-one has ever injured me and not suffered more for it.”
Medea being a “barbarian” from a barbarian country is just one of the themes of Euripides’ play that resonates in our world today. Jeffer’s text is full of pithy lines that speak to concerns that persist over the ages: the prejudice against immigrants, the danger of arrogant nationalism, the unequal morality of marriage, or the gross injustice inherent in the assumptions of patriarchal primacy. As the play argues and demonstrates so clearly: “It is a bitter thing to be a woman.” It requires cunning and courage to survive.
The men in Corinth certainly seem to hold all the conventional cards. Jason is readily able to discard Medea and marry the King’s daughter in order to secure his own advancement, and incidentally also explore fresh pleasures. The King, Creon, simply banishes Medea and her sons to rid himself of any nuisance or threat she or they may pose. Medea must resort to unconventional means to counter their established power, including the magic that turns her golden gifts of gown and crown into the fire that flays Creon and his daughter.
All of the men in this production are played by Ben Daniels, who through impressive variety of voice and physicality embodies Jason, Creon, Aegeus the King of Athens, as well as the children’s tutor. As it happens, Dominic Cooke employed doubling in his production of Good, where the interchangeability of characters based on race underscored the play’s themes. I was less convinced that the doubling here augmented meaning. The idea that all men are the same in the eyes of Medea or the women of Corinth feels like a facile point; in fact the lack of multiple male figures dilutes the scale of masculine power that rules this world and that Medea is up against.
Daniels portrays Aegeus as a camp gay man, which provides some light relief in the darkness of the story, but which is an unnecessarily literal interpretation of the character’s infertility.
I likewise did not feel that the director’s choice to have Daniels continuously circle the stage in slow motion specifically enhanced the storytelling. Although his body shaping reminded me of a heroic Greek sculpture, it is not clear what his movement is supposed to signify? Is it an ironic nod to the inflation of the male heroes’ ancient achievements, or is his constant running meant to signify that all men are caught in an endless, repeating cycle? It is an ambiguous distraction.
The children’s nurse played by Marion Bailey serves an important role in the play in providing narrative filler, particularly when at the beginning she paints the backstory that brought Medea and Jason to their current situation. In Bailey’s rather flat performance she is an effective mouthpiece of exposition, but never really becomes a character.
There is a suitably ominous soundscape in the production comprising flickering light and rumbling thunder that builds to the final storm, complete with stair rods of rain drenching the blood-spattered figures of Medea and Jason. A literal rendering of the natural portents signalled throughout the play. In the aftermath of the murder of the King and his daughter, the chaos in the city is evoked by the sound of a helicopter flying over, a surprising and unnecessary gesture to modernize the scene I thought.
Whatever quibbles I have about these details in the production, it is impossible not to be blasted by the visceral punch of the final terrible acts of the play. Here, Medea takes the children down the open stairwell from which we hear their screams, followed even more disturbingly by the thuds of Medea’s blows continuing after their screams are silent. Medea’s feverish defiance when she emerges cannot assuage our horror, a horror which Daniels makes devastatingly moving in Jason’s grief.
Medea is never an easy watch, but is always a deeply engrossing experience. I will long remember images of the elemental setting of this production, and of Sophie Okonedo’s spellbinding, frightening, commanding performance of the wronged Medea.
The production continues at the Soho Place theatre until the 22nd of April.
I’d love to hear what you think, especially if you’ve seen this production or have any other thoughts on Medea.
Photo credit Johan Persson
Photo credit Johan Persson