Review: Medea (National Theatre, London)

In the first production of Medea to be staged at National Theatre, Helen McCrory excels in the title role. But while Carrie Cracknell’s production packs a punch in its final third, the evening is full of inconsistency.

Medea National Theatre PosterFor those unfamiliar with Medea (of which I counted myself before this performance), it’s the story of a woman lost to anger and torment, who seeks revenge on her ex-husband for leaving her. Forced to leave the city of Corinth, she goes on a bloody rampage that culminates in the murder of her two children.

In the title role, Helen McCrory excels. Playing the tormented Medea with incredible conviction, she snaps between the weeping mother and vengeful, rash murderer with a sharpness that highlights the lack of reason perfectly. Appearing first within the woods as a shouting, feral beast, she leaves carrying the bodies of her two children over her shoulders – a bloody mess, she is both an empty shell with no hope of return and a woman who believes that she has successfully enacted her revenge.

Helen McCrory as Medea at National Theatre
Helen McCrory (Photo by Richard Hupert Smith)

In fact, it’s hard not to be engrossed by her. She commands the stage and there’s rawness to her Medea that must make this one of the most compelling performances on the London stage this season.

It’s a shame then that, for the most part, the rest of the cast don’t match those same heights. In the roles of Aegeus, Kreon and Jason, Dominic Rowan, Martin Turner and Danny Sapani come across as relatively wooden. And with the exception of Sapani in the closing scenes, all three seemed emotionless considering the nature of the narrative.

The cast of Medea at National Theatre
The cast of Medea (Photo by Richard Hupert Smith)

Michaela Coel was equally placid as the Nurse, opening and closing the play with questions about the inevitability of the events that will and have happened. But it works; she delivers the lines with a neutrality that gives us the opportunity to take on board Medea’s tragedy without bias. She is an onlooker; not a figure of judgement.

In Cracknell’s modern telling of this story, there’s a gritty, haunting tone that runs through everything from the set design to the use of the Chorus. Here the women of Corinth are a jittery, choral group who are the vehicle for which we are introduced to Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s solid (if a tad preditable) compositions.

For the most part, the Chorus works, exposing the inner workings of Medea and questioning her from the shadows, and 90% of the time their movement and song supports that. But there’s a strange moment prior to the murders where the Chorus breaks into full dance – jittering and wailing in time to the music. It’s deeply haunting but jars with the building tension in the scenes around it, and is too far removed.

Medea at the National Theatre set design
Tom Scutt’s set design (Photo by Richard Hupert Smith)

Despite those issues, the final 20-30 minutes of this 100 minute production come together far more successfully than the previous hour. This is Cracknell’s Medea at its best, and clearly where she feels most comfortable. Away from the politics of the world around this central character, it’s far more introspective and while not altogether faithful to the original intentions of the text, it gives McCrory’s creation a fitting conclusion that asks for ovation.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

This is Helen McCrory’s star turn. In an otherwise inconsistent evening, she shines. And while there’s a haunting tension throughout, it’s not until the final third that this production really manages to find out the kind of production it wants to be. A three-star production with a four-star central performance.

Medea is playing until 4th September 2014. Tickets can be purchased on the National Theatre website. Approx. running time is 90 minutes with no interval.

And the seat…

Circle, row C, seat 62. This was my first time in the Olivier circle. And while I had a perfect, uninterrupted view, it felt a little distance from the action on stage, despite giving a nice overview of the scenery.

Olivier Theatre, Circle C62
Olivier Theatre, Circle C62

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