Medea, Almeida Theatre, review: ‘A scarring look at motherhood’

Kate Fleetwood in Medea at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner

Kate Fleetwood in Medea at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

Rachel Cusk’s adaptation of Euripides’ infamous tragedy is biting, bilious and painfully astute, says Alex Bellotti.

With piercing black eyes and cheekbones that could have been chiselled from Grecian marble, Kate Fleetwood looks every inch the perfect classical Medea. Yet in the last show of the Almeida’s Greek season, her starring role in Euripides’s infamous tragedy is given a contemporary sting by divisive feminist writer Rachel Cusk. And it is every bit as biting, bilious and painfully astute as her reputation suggests.

The bare narrative needs little introduction. Medea is the grief-stricken wife who, when deserted by her husband for another woman, exacts revenge by murdering their two children. In Rupert Goold’s production, an Islington-style townhouse is the furnace in which Cusk – famed for her books, A Life’s Work and Aftermath, on motherhood and marriage respectively – stokes the fiery fallout between down-on-her-luck writer Medea and her prospering actor husband, Jason.

From the off, Fleetwood looks ghoulish in her torment – introduced to the audience in a zombie-like trance while her mother (Amanda Boxer) amusingly piles layers of outdated wifely advice upon her. Once Medea’s voice sounds, however, it is rarely silenced, and the most uncomfortable aspect of her agony is in the lack of empathy she receives across the board; from the chorus of cliquey yummy-mummies to her weaselling husband (played with measured conceit by Justin Salinger), her refusal to suffer in silence is seen not just as undignified, but as the cause for what has befallen her.

As the mood darkens, and Adam Cork’s orchestral noir score builds with cinematic intensity, Fleetwood ascends to career-peaking depths of grief and terrifying power. The children (maturely played tonight by Lukas Rolfe and Sam Smith) are caught up in her tornado – both admonishing and sharing her grief – but when the climax reaches its peak, the pace changes.

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In a nod to the play’s classical heritage, Charlotte Randler appears as the messenger, but while she verbosely delivers a neat twist on the conclusion, it is partially lost in a rapidly-explained chain of superfluous events.

By the time the dust settles, the audience is faced with the question: is modern parenthood really a meeting of two halves, or are mothers still bound to their children – both biologically and culturally – in a way that fathers are not? Conclusions will no doubt vary, but this production is filled with shards of inescapable, rarely-heard truths about motherhood and marriage. And many of them will settle beneath the skin.

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