Friday 23 November 2012

Theatre Review: Headlong's Medea (Richmond, & touring)

There’s just one very good reason to see Headlong’s Medea, which updates and relocates Euripides’s tragedy to contemporary England. It’s not Ruari Murchison’s set design – clever though it is – which places the characters variously inside and outside an archetypal two-storey suburban home that opens and shuts like a large doll’s house. And it’s certainly not Mike Bartlett’s text, by far the weakest element of the enterprise. The reason to see the show is, simply, Rachael Stirling, blazing and brilliant in a great performance that overrides some – though, alas, not all – of the problematic elements of the production.

Red-haired here and by turns husky, harsh and velvet-voiced, Stirling’s Medea dominates – as every good Medea surely should – from her first appearance, with Stirling’s vocal resemblance to her mother Diana Rigg (who of course played the role to great acclaim in the early 1990s) adding another layer to the performance. Bartlett, who also directs the production, makes the character palpably an “outsider” figure in her community, a woman who’s about to be evicted from the house she shared with her husband Jason (Adam Levy), the latter having left her for their landlord’s daughter, Kate, who he’s going to marry. This event has made the couple’s son Tom mute and sent Medea herself into a black depression that’s interspersed with tirades against her errant ex and against a woman’s lot in general.

By turns proud and paranoid, bitter and desperate, Stirling “kills” in the role. But if only every element in Barlett’s production were as strong. It’s not so much the modernising that’s the problem – indeed, it could be argued that Bartlett hasn’t been as radical as he might have been in his adaptation of the text – but simply that the writing isn’t adequate to the task at hand. Complete with references to Strictly Come Dancing and Richard Curtis flicks, the dialogue is sub-soap opera standard for the most part, but there are occasional lurches into a more heightened mode. Medea reminds Jason about saving him from “the Grecian sea” and pauses at one moment to muse: “Is everything preordained? Do you believe in fate?” These jarring juxtapositions mean that the production struggles to find a suitable tone. For the most part, it’s more comic than tragic, and the OTT final moments simply haven’t earned the emotion that they evidently seek to incite.

There’s the odd effective episode, notably a touching late scene between Medea and her ever-silent son, but a couple of moments feel like indulgences (a painful cookery scene scored to Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” for one). Overall, the familiarity of the context tends to dampen rather than accentuate the tragic dimension of the piece, and, for all its contemporary allusions, Bartlett’s adaptation gives startlingly little insight into what might motivate an infanticide.

Since Medea is provided with an escape route – courtesy of a kindly neighbour (Paul Shelley, the only cast member to give a performance that’s a match for Stirling’s) – it might have been more effective if Bartlett had not had his heroine wreak vengeance – or at least not in the unconvincing manner in which it happens here – thereby subverting our expectations and providing this Medea with a different fate. It’s a tactic that may have proved more in keeping with the overall tone of the production, for as it stands this Headlong plunge into Greek Tragedy proves a disappointment, albeit one that’s just about worth seeing for Stirling’s commanding work.

At Richmond Theatre until 24th November. Further information at Headlong's website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

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