Lust. scorn. betrayal. revenge. Euripides's Medea offers a comprehensive sampling of repugnant character traits — which one would hope only pertains to Greek mythologies. Yet, as hot young playwright Ben Power and emerging director Carrie Cracknell show us in the latest re-versioning at The National Theatre, Medea's destitute, and ultimately murderous, ways are not a far cry from existing events today.
Just as if you were meeting the likes of Myra Hindley for the first time, Medea is introduced wearing trousers and a t-shirt and talking in 'plain-speak' (minus the Greek pomp) — appearing like the woman-next-door. The revamped production further departs from Euripides's version by casting Danny Sapani as Medea's cheating, power-hungry husband Jason, who, together with their two young sons, make up an inter-racial family, again purporting the modern-day set-up.
Though life on one hand seems normal for Medea (we see her brushing her teeth, getting the children to bed), the narrator and nurse, played by an accurately concerned Michaela Coel, assures the audience an ominous turn is inevitable on account of Jason's upcoming marriage to the younger Kreusa, daughter to the King of Corinth. Seen from Tom Scutt's impressively beautiful yet functional two-tiered stage design: wedding guests are gathering upstairs, while below in Medea's home, she is frantically pacing, and worse, running to the adjacent woodland crying out with ghastly shrieks.
McCrory marvellously unravels Medea — sending a slow build of shivers up both the audience and the character's spines. From the King of Corinth himself, played by Martin Turner, who orders her to leave Corinth as he is "frightened of what she may do", to the group of feathery chorus dancers, who express their dread with feared whispers and tribal-like movements (choreographed by Australia's dynamic Lucy Guerin) — it is made clear that Medea's destructive past has left her without an ounce of trust from the community.
And indeed they are right. As events build to their malevolent climax, sniffles and gasps can be heard throughout the theatre. We know the ending; but as with most of these stories, you hope it will somehow be circumvented. Power and Cracknell, together with McCrory's powerful take on a mentally unwell mother and Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp's haunting soundtrack, deliver an emotionally-packed finale, bringing standing ovations at the curtain call.
If the ending keeps your mind pondering — just how could a mother and wife perform such vile acts? — the theatre is providing a series of platform discussions relating to Greek tragedies and the psychology behind deleterious mothers.
Medea is at The Olivier Theatre at The National Theatre until 4 September. The show runs daily at 7.30pm, with matinees at 2pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets £15-£35, with a running time of 90 minutes (without an interval). A NT live performance will be broadcast in cinemas on 4 September.