by Euripedes
in a new version by Rachel Cusk
Almeida Theatre, London

Rupert Goold brings his acclaimed Greek season at the Almeida to a close with a blazing new version of Medea by Rachel Cusk, featuring his wife Kate Fleetwood in the title role. Medea, one of the most well-known and widely performed of the ancient Greek tragedies, concerns the vicious revenge a woman exacts on her unfaithful husband, culminating in the cold-blooded murder of her own sons to cause him ultimate pain. Cusk's vital contribution is in recasting this story as one of devastating marital breakdown instead of pure bloodshed. 

Here is a Medea for the twenty-first century, a struggling writer whose life is unravelling because her actor-husband, Jason (Justin Salinger), has left her for another woman. Her sons hate living with her, the posh neighbours are endlessly gossipping and even her parents do not offer any comfort for her predicament. 

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Cusk is a writer who has been famously vocal about her own experiences with motherhood and marital woes and it's easy to see how this feeds into her version of the text, which bubbles with vicious confrontations between Medea and Jason about money and property. The traditional female chorus is memorably re-imagined as a gaggle of uppity yummy mummies whose lives revolve around yoga, power lunches and domestic bliss and one is acutely aware of the pain and isolation Medea feels in a life that has closed in around her. 

Working with her husband for the first time since the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth, Fleetwood makes a striking Medea who is by turns ferocious and heart-wrenching. She totters around onstage with a savage air and arrests us in moments of quiet abstraction. Yet, while transplanting the character into a familiar milieu may make the tale more urgent, I remain unconvinced by the full extent of its tragedy. Most of the action plays out like a domestic soap opera complete with acrimonious screaming over the phone. 

Photo Credit: Donald cooper/Photostage

A key aspect of Medea is how she systematically manipulates those around her - Jason, Creon and Aegeus - and this simply does not come across in Cusk's version of the text which remains, for the most part, rooted in the realm of heated family drama. Most crucially, the climax is muted when we learn, through an enigmatic Messenger, that Medea's sons have overdosed on painkillers. The character is thus robbed of her defining violence; the closest this Medea comes to wielding a knife is contemplatively fingering one in the safety of her kitchen.

Rupert Goold's brisk, 90-minute production is visually powerful and gains from a striking lighting design. The backdrop turns into a wide semicircle which glows with red, incandescent energy. This lends a primeval feel to the action that is echoed by Medea herself wearing grey robes and the ensemble breaking out into a crazed, ritualistic dance.

There are solid performances all round but ultimately, this radical take on one of the most fascinating female characters in the Greek theatre canon loses something by omitting the play's characteristic brutality. This may be a Medea for our times but it's missing some of its soul. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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