When confronted with a production of this calibre – so absorbingly relevant, so in tune with our society’s downward-spiralling patterns of destruction – it can come as a shock to remember that Medea was written by a man, Euripides, in the 5th century BC, to be performed by men for an exclusively male audience.
Out of what might well have been intended as a warning of the consequences of uncontrolled female passion, not an exploration of the suffering produced by gender inequalities, the National Theatre have created a harsh immediacy from the text, aided by Ben Power’s innovative translation.
The chorus, making the most of their unique position as intermediate between characters and spectators, contribute with consonantly dark choreography. The way in which their rigidly awkward, puppet-like movements during Jason’s first dance with his new bride give way to the twitching and juddering of malfunctioning mechanical dolls seem to express something more than how the gods can be puppeteers of human action.
It contrasts the expressionless, desireless objects that the women of the play are expected to be with the awful glitch in Medea’s mind when the strain of this act becomes too much: a strain demonstrated as Medea, in an expertly judged performance by Helen McCrory, must put on a mask of weakness, apologising for her womanly tearfulness while begging Creon, the father of Jason’s new wife, not to exile her and her children. This is made all the more powerful by occasional glimmers of how she once was – in her vivacious humour, her formidable intelligence now put to a terrible use, in how other characters, those who knew her in the past, treat her with such love and concern.
Capitalising on this tension in an intensely dramatic but rather overt example of extreme bipolarity, Medea’s monologue at one point becomes a spilt-personality conflict between a timidly uncertain self, appalled by what she is compelled to do, and a roaring, demonic ferocity that possesses her: a technique put to slightly better use in Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth last year.
Danny Sapani convinced as Jason, a character endlessly capable of turning the stomach as he switches allegiance with the ease of someone whose only concern is political advantage. “You are my proudest achievements” he tells his sons as if they are just an addition to his collection of trophies, utterly incapable of meaningful interaction with them. Watching his calculated and powerful fury giving way to shaken, horrified impotence in the face of her crime creates an unsettling emotional mix of devastation and elation.
But her crime is no act of insanity. Hints of her psychological motivations remain almost understandable when they surface: her evident traumatisation by difficult childbirth was left unresolved, as must have been the case for so many women in a time of extremely limited knowledge of both medicine and of the mental stress which such experiences could exert.
The focus on Jason and Medea’s failed marriage, arguing in a way that couples have clearly argued for millennia, also resonates as a reminder of how this is a story that is being retold endlessly: in the wake of parental break-up, it is often the children who are truly damaged the most. For its deeply relevant depiction of how experiences of betrayal can brutalise anyone, this is certainly not a performance to miss.