As Lucy Jackson has summarised recently, the myth of Medea is one that continues to resonate and reverberate powerfully in our culture, inspiring fresh revisionings in literature, art, film and on stage. That said, the 2012 incarnation of Euripides’s text - Mike Bartlett’s soap-opera-verging-on-sitcom variation for Headlong, which set the story in a contemporary English suburb - struck me as mostly ridiculous, despite the committed efforts of Rachael Stirling in the lead.
Carrie Cracknell’s major new production for the National, which had its first preview on Monday, proves a much more assured, arresting and absorbing experience than Headlong’s. (This, despite the coughers, over-laughers and people who had certainly NOT switched off their fucking mobile phones who sadly constituted some of the first performance’s audience.) It’s a potent new version that - in aspects of its aesthetic as well as its overt, bracing feminism - feels all-of-a-piece with Cracknell’s recent projects: her much-admired A Doll’s House for the Young Vic and this year’s Blurred Lines at the NT Shed. I don’t want to comment too specifically on the staging at this early point in the run, so as not to spoil the pleasure of discovery for others. But suffice it to say that Cracknell and Ben Power (who contributes a supple, fluid and robust translation) succeed in finding a contemporary context for the story that (unlike Bartlett’s) doesn’t make you cringe, that still allows for grandeur, and that cuts to the dark heart of the play’s exploration of the damage wrought by betrayed and thwarted love. Tom Scutt’s design - initially underwhelming; gradually revelatory - captures precisely the production’s mixture of the intimate and the epic, the feral and the domestic. As does the score by Goldfrapp (a band whose charms have mostly been lost on me, I have to confess), who come through here with a series of evocative soundscapes that move compellingly from twinkling atmospherics to swelling choral surge.
The production won’t be as divisive as the National’s spectacularly polarising Edward II was last summer, but it’s still one that audiences will debate and argue over, I think. There are, it must be said, some odd aspects: the under-utilising of Dominic Rowan as Aegeus , for one. And while the all-female Chorus is a marvellous touch, and mostly brilliantly integrated, I could have lived without the Pan’s-People-via-Pina-Baush contortions that Lucy Guerin’s choreography puts them through at various points.
Still, the production grips and moves. And at its centre is a performance by Helen McCrory that is as thrillingly rich and inspired as you could wish for. Fierce yet fragile, bitingly witty and savage in self-laceration, the captivating McCrory shrinks the auditorium to intimacy as she also finds a devastating vulnerability and, yes, tenderness in the character, honouring all the contradictions of a woman turned “expert in terror, expert in pain.” It is, already, a performance to haunt you, and one that, in the production’s stunning final third, communicates the play’s tragedy with the force of a thunderclap.
The production runs for 1 hour 40 minutes without interval. Booking until September 4th. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/medea?dates=all#tabpos