The National Theatre’s new production of Medea has been getting positive reviews, including a considerable spread in the Evening Standard (although I think the comment about Creon being under-used misses the point of how Greek tragedy works). The script is a new version by Ben Power – unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much out there about how he’s worked with the text, although he’s doing a Platform talk on the process that I’m going to try to get to. It’s not entirely faithful to the original Greek – the nurse becomes conflated with the pedagogue and says a closing epilogue, for instance – but after teaching the play in the autumn , I could hear plenty of echoes of the original Greek in there. The language is powerful and imaginative, although quite terse and quickly paced, and keeps ancient elements like calling on the gods without trying to modernise them.
The production has an interesting approach to music – it is accompanied by new compositions from Goldfrapp, which manage to be compelling and eerie at the same time. The chorus actually sing their choral interludes, which is rather wonderful and very effective; they also dance, although I have to say that while I can see the spasmodic choreography as mirroring the emotional and psychological convulsions of the plot, it was a bit difficult to take it entirely seriously. The dance of the princess as she tried to remove the poisoned dress worked much better from that perspective. I think the musical soundtrack was one of the strongest elements of the production – it underlays everything, very much like a film score (I shall come back to that point), and so intertwines in the audience’s consciousness to very strong effect. It’s a very subtle score, enhancing emotional response without dictating it too obviously; I noticed it with a jolt in the closing scenes, not because it did anything differently, but because my brain suddenly noticed it was there! This might have more to do with my immersive attitude to theatre-going, but I can’t remember a recent production that’s handled its music this well that hasn’t been musical theatre or opera.
The chorus themselves wear dresses covered in a shabby-chic floral print that echo the woods which are presented at the back of the stage (hypothetically ‘outside’ the house in which the action takes place); it’s not until the end of the play that it becomes clear that the patterns of flowers on their dresses echo the bloodstains on Medea’s dress after she has murdered her children. The handling of the chorus is one of those particularly difficult challenges for modern productions; here, the director has them fade on and off stage, meaning they can be read either as ‘real’ characters or as figments of Medea’s imagination, which was a convincing approach. They also made good use of a boxed-off room at mezzanine level, in which the wedding of Jason and Creusa was played out – that let the audience see the progress of the party (and Creusa’s eventual death-dance) without detracting from the action in the ‘main’ house.
The production is particularly interested in drawing out the psychological interest of Medea’s journey as a character – the program includes notes from Edith Hall (who has a long-standing interest in using modern psychology and criminology to explore some of the most shocking elements of Greek tragedy) and Helena Kennedy QC (who writes from her position as an advocate in criminal cases where a woman has murdered her children). This leads to a powerful performance from Helen McCrory, who stretches her whole body and vocal range to get us right into the moments of break and strain, and right over into the cracking. This does mean that there are no winged chariots at the end of the play – Medea walks on and off stage with the bodies of her children, hallucinating (or so it would seem) a company of her ancestors surrounding her, interpreting the close of the play as delusional. It’s one way of doing it, and in keeping with the production’s overall agenda, although we could debate its relationship to the original text. Another aspect that the production brings out well is the mid-life crisis element of Jason’s decision to marry a ‘new bride’. It’s there in the Greek, as I rediscovered when teaching it, but it’s not always an element that gets bought out in productions. We tend to forget that Medea has had two children and so must be at least mid-twenties, while the young princess is – well, young. The National’s production moves Medea up to our conception of middle age and makes Creusa her early twenties, because ancient Greek marriage ages are not entirely comfortable for modern audiences, but that brings out the broader cultural possibilities of the clash rather well.
A small niggle – I never expected Medea’s line that she would rather fight on the battle line three times rather than give birth once to get a laugh. Even with Power’s exaggeration of the number (a thousand, I think), I still wasn’t laughing. There were a couple of lines like that, where I sat and was surprised by the fact they got a laugh. I didn’t even think McCrory’s delivery was particularly comic. I don’t know if it’s just the fact I’m so used to the play that the humour passed me by, or if it was the laughter that temporarily relieves the tension as we know we’re going towards the ending of child-murder.
Which brings us neatly to another element that I thought helped make this a particularly successful production. As we left the theatre, G turned to me and said “that was very influenced by The Shining, wasn’t it?” Now, I’ve never seen The Shining (and have no intention of doing so), but apparently the production as a whole deliberately evokes the cultural intertext of the horror film, as the production’s staff director explains. As soon as I realised this was deliberate, a hell of a lot of things fell into place, and I realised just how clever this production is. Most superficially, it explains the aesthetics of the set – peeling wallpaper, 1960s cabin furniture, all that good evocative ‘we’re in the woods and somewhere out there is a man with an axe’ scene-setting stuff, not to mention the actual wood outside. It explains the film music feel of Goldfrapp’s contribution – if this is Medea staged as a horror movie, there must be a score behind it.
And it explains the meta elements of the production in the Nurse’s prologue and epilogue. As the play opens, she tells the audience (‘you watching in the dark’) that some stories have to be told, and we all know how this one will end; at its close, she reiterates that there was only one way this could end, calls on the audience again, and observes that all hope is dead. At first, I figured this was a fairly standard ‘look, it’s a play!’ comment, but within the framing of the horror film intertext, it becomes a lot more interesting. Of course we know how it will end – because we all know how horror films always end, we can spot the victims in the first ten minutes, and we know how it’s going to play out. It’s not just about the fact we know how Medea goes, it’s the genre as a whole. There’s also an additional question there which film studies people think about a lot, which is the implication of the viewer in watching these sorts of things and taking enjoyment in them. Why do we take pleasure in watching violence? It’s something that, for instance, Michael Haneke’s work explores by pushing films set in more conventional ways to the boundaries of what one can watch comfortably (and I certainly can’t), deliberately challenging the sort of film that allows the viewer to enjoy violence without considering its reality. While the classic horror films on which this production draws don’t commit, for instance, the gross failures of taste that I understand typify the Saw franchise, employing that visual rhetoric does ask us what we are getting out of watching this woman prepare to murder her children. But the most important impact is that reminder that of course we know how this will end – we are well-educated consumers of horror, and Medea is no exception.
Some of you may remember my thoughts on the National’s Antigone. That is, of course, a far more difficult play to get right in any context (see also my thoughts on Julian Anderson’s Thebans). But I think that this production was far more successful in its attempt to speak to modernity. The Antigone was firmly embedded in a specific historical incident, namely the war against terror and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden; while I thought it was effective at the time, were it to be staged now (only a couple of years on) it would feel decidedly dated. This Medea has chosen to instead to interact with a much more deeply embedded and subtle cultural script, which speaks to us in the audience even if we are not aware of it. Much of this production’s power springs from the productive intersection between this modern phenomenon and the Greek original, and I would urge you to see it if you possibly can.
Not in London? The National Theatre Live program will be showing Medea in cinemas from 4th September.