Actress Kate Fleetwood: ‘As mothers, we’re still slaves to culture’
Currently starring in the Almeida’s Medea, the Stroud Green resident tells Alex Bellotti why she hopes the show will draw attention to the loneliness modern mothers continue to face.
It is the most performed Greek tragedy of the last century, and in the last year alone luminaries such as Helen McCrory and Juliette Binoche have played its eponymous lead. Yet for many, the true appeal of Euripides’s Medea remains its timeless, chilling finale: this is the story of a mother who, upon discovering her husband’s infidelity, murders their two children in vengeance.
Kate Fleetwood, the latest actress to play the tragic heroine, is all too aware of the play’s novel hook. In the Almeida Theatre’s new adaptation, however, she hopes that a modernised script by divisive feminist writer Rachel Cusk will shine more light on the psychology leading up to the show’s shocking climax.
“Rachel’s very interested in the fetishisation of this piece – ‘Oh, it’s about a woman who killed her children’,” says Fleetwood. “People forget that there’s a journey before she kills her children, and that it’s not just about betrayal but about what it is to be a mother.”
Having cut her teeth first at the RSC before building up a career primarily as a classical actress, Fleetwood has long known the role of Medea. In 2001, she supported Fiona Shaw in a version by Deborah Warner; in the same year, she met the new show’s director, Rupert Goold, who she is now married to with two children.
While reluctant to give too much away about Cusk’s story, she believes its focus on how even modern women can be “slaves to cultural narratives” means every mother can relate to Medea.
“I’m a mother, and I’m not going to kill my children,” she laughs, “but I certainly know through experience. Pregnancy – for me, I’m not generalising here – was almost playacting becoming a mother. It’s not until the day you have the baby that you realise what that is – and I’m not talking about your responsibility to your children or the love you feel, but about how the world sees you completely differently.
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“Once you have the child, you become a political property of cultural narrative: how people feel about their own mothers, how they feel about being mothers themselves, how we should be mothers, how we shouldn’t be, what makes a good mother, what makes a bad mother.
“It becomes very quickly a baptism of fire where you think, ‘I didn’t anticipate this – I anticipated not sleeping and suddenly loving a stranger, but I didn’t expect the judgement people place on me about how I am as a mother.”
This, the Stroud Green resident explains, is a particularly pertinent issue even in modern times. She points to Patricia Arquette’s Oscar-winning performance in the film Boyhood as a rare example of a mother being able to show such conflict, adding that “we’re not really allowed to voice that feeling of loneliness and loss of identity; you’re supposed to be made whole by children, not completely split in two”.
Fleetwood, who received an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the 2004 stage musical London Road, is no stranger to working with her director husband. They have done so four times – notably in a 2004 production of Macbeth where she starred alongside Patrick Stewart – and while Fleetwood admits Goold is “very exacting on me and there have been moments where I’ve felt very vulnerable about that”, she’s ultimately comfortably in the knowledge that “he’s only trying to get the best out of me”.
Compared to when she last acted in Medea, the actress is aware that society has changed.
Looking back on the difference between the two shows, she says: “I think there was a real big thing in that  production about fame. It was just when the Beckhams were taking over the world and we used that as a big point of reference.
“It’s a very different feminist landscape now to what it was 15 years ago. There’s a generation of young women these days who assume a feminist role and that’s not considered unusual.
“If you’re a young person watching our show, you’ll recognise a lot of the elements in it and the conflicts people feel,” she says, before laughing dryly. “Though it might put you off children or getting married.”
Medea runs at the Almeida Theatre from tomorrow (Sept 25) until November 14. Visit almeida.co.uk