By Gustavo Subero
In the last instalment of their Greek tragedy season, the Almeida Theatre brings Rachel Cusk’s version of Medea. A play that explores the limits of the female psyche when pushed to the extreme by the abandonment of the paterfamilias, the very fracture of the family structure and the traditional values that sustain a patriarchal society. This adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy transports the audience to a very contemporary home setting where Medea’s breakdown and the upside down world she now inhabits unfolds in a literally tilted domestic setting (the clever work of set designer Ian MacNeil) that seems to reflect her unstable personality. Medea is superbly played by Kate Fleetwood whose temperament swings from angrily heartbroken quickly morphing into a pathetic neediness towards her ex-husband Jason, played by Justin Salinger. Cusk maintains most of the main elements of the original piece while cleverly updating the domestic situations surrounding the way in which the action develops. For instance, the audience learns from the outset that Jason has left the protagonist and has asked her for a divorce. Here the tension between Medea and her ex-husband is built up during discussions that range from having to sell the family home and splitting all their possessions, to having to battle for the custody of their children. By the same token, most of the exchanges between the pair will be dramatised through phone exchanges in which the actors narrowly avoid each other on stage.
There are certain narrative devices that work really well in this adaptation. Perhaps, one of the cleverest is the fact that the female chorus becomes a group of “yummy mummies” (clearly identifiable as middles class mums who meet for coffee after the school-run) who waste no time to pass judgement and criticise Medea’s actions towards both her ex-husband and her own children. Furthermore, positioning the protagonist as a fairly-famous writer might derive from Cusk’s own anxieties as a writer herself. By the same token there are certain moments in which director Rupert Goold cleverly provides glimpses into the actual characters of the original tragedy by means of simple props, as in the case of the cutout golden crown worn by Creon. A character that is played with an astute and evil suaveness by Andy de la Tour, as he meets Medea in order to coerce her into accepting her fate without becoming an impediment to his own daughter’s desire to marry Jason. Finally, the afterword provided by an androgynous embodiment of the gods and interpreted by Sarah Belcher, as she narrates the fate of Medea and her ex-husband while dressed as both man and woman parted in the middle, provides a clever touch of both eeriness and glamour as an omniscient spectator to to the final actions in the play.
However, there are also a couple of instances in which the choices by Goold and his team fail to make the play more consistent. For instance, the decision to dress the chorus in drapes (over their trendy jeans and blouses) seems an unnecessary device to ensure that audiences realise they are, indeed, the female chorus of the original tragedy. Equally, their synchronised dances seem to be more gimmicky and disruptive to the narrative than providing any real help to the development of the story. Unfortunately, the same must be said of Medea’s meeting with Aegeus, who in this version is played with a subtle gay campness by Richard Cant, as their meeting does not seem to provide much in the sense of story development, nor does his background story (in terms of his inability to procreate and how this correlates to the eventual fate of the protagonists’ children).
None the less, this is a great adaptation that plays really well for a 21c audience; specially as the fate of the protagonist and the way the play comes to a resolution appear to be more in tune with the realities of a contemporary, and also very bitter divorce and how it can affect the whole family unit. In short, Medea makes justice to Euripides’s anti-patriarchal original without sentimentalising or caricaturing the protagonist’s actions, but sadly does not deliver to the same extend of creative brilliance found on the previous plays of this timely season.
Andy de la Tour
Xavier Moras Spencer
Version Rachel Cusk
Direction Rupert Goold
Set Ian MacNeil
Costume Holly Waddington
Light Neil Austin
Composition and Sound Adam Cork
Choreography Scott Ambler
Casting Julia Horan CDG
Assistant Direction Sara Joyce
Trainee Director David Loumgair