Theatre Review: Medea at the National Theatre

It’s an ‘unthinkable’ crime, yet all too fathomable in Carrie Cracknell’s electrifying production.

Her modern setting for Euripides’ masterpiece is unobtrusive, allowing the discomfort that comes from viewing horror in a familiar setting to creep upon us during a riveting 90 minutes.

Assisted by Ben Power’s lucid, resonant adaptation, Cracknell builds a fascinating mental framework for Medea (Helen McCrory), who embraced exile and murder for her beloved Jason (Danny Sapani), only to be abandoned for another woman. The terrible inevitability stems not from the fates, but from the psyche of someone brutalised by conflict, shattered by betrayal and left dangerously isolated, her identity ripped from her.

The strong, empathetic Chorus (with Jane Wymark a standout) urges Medea away from grave action even as they draw vicarious satisfaction from it, and our similar complicity makes the bloody outcome deeply unsettling.

Magnetic McCrory gives a performance of devastating power, believably cycling through Medea’s jarring emotions. She begins a darkly sarcastic shell, but as grief fuels her, she savours the deadly logic that leads her to retake control at a terrible cost, primal vengeance paired with heartrending anguish.

McCrory expertly employs Medea’s feminine weapons, extracting mercy from Kreon (Martin Turner) with weeping, trembling and swooning, and transforming her ‘woman’s weakness’ into strength, most chillingly when coaxing her children to deliver death to her enemy.

Sapani’s Jason is stubborn and unfeeling, then quietly moving when his self-assurance is demolished. Dominic Rowan’s credulous Aegeus is effective, but Nurse (Michaela Coel) lacks gravity in her framing speeches.

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The accessible drama gains a mystical quality through Goldfrapp’s music, with its insistent pulse, throbbing strings, operatic cries and fugue-like climax. Lucy Guerin’s figurative choreography is intriguing, but pulls focus. It’s an unnecessary addition to such a shrewd reading, with a villain who is all the more harrowing for her palpable humanity.

Four out of five stars