Theatre Review: Medea

A WOMAN driven by rage and jealousy to slaughter her children in a chillingly premeditated act of murderous revenge. In Greek tragedy, Medea is the ultimate portrayal of female wickedness – in Carrie Cracknell’s production at the National, it is not the wickedness but voicelessness which strikes us.

“How could it end in any way other than this? Silence and then darkness.” The silence is Medea’s. Plucked from obscurity by Jason, she is like a footballer’s wife, wholly invested in her star spouse, disenfranchised and without options when the union breaks down. Jason, having rejected her for a younger bride, concerns himself with practicalities. Where will the children go? Where can Medea live now that they’re no longer married? In this world magnanimity is a man’s privilege. Cast aside and lacking a voice with which to register her feelings, she lashes out at the world with an act of deafening violence.

Helen McCrory supplies her Medea with multiple edges: she is a woman wronged but she does wrong, too. Her act isn’t committed in a fit of rage or a swirl of hysteria; it is calculated. She knows the effect it will have and that is why she does it. McCrory’s performance is fearsome, powerful and sad. Her isolation is only partial; a chorus of ethereal women lend support with singing that waivers between tribal and angelic, their graceful movement lurching into bouts of fitful dance. The wild/civilised duality is also reflected in the set which divides the action across two levels, one awash with neutral colours and fabric drapes, the other gnarled and overgrown. It isn’t a subtle way of illustrating the two sides of human nature but it’s executed with style: the trees look dark and strangely alluring in their wildness, the palace soft, comfortable and bland.

Alison Goldfrapp’s music starts off floaty and serene and ends with thunderous industrial crunching. It provides the play with a darkly gathering momentum, ramping up the dramatic intensity at critical moments. The end, which is revealed in the beginning, is catastrophic for everyone. It serves as a valuable reminder that to strip someone of everything is to leave them with nothing to lose. And when someone has nothing to lose, who knows what they will do?