Published in the Guardian
HE ENTERS in socks, tracksuit bottoms and faded grey T-shirt. Her blood-red hair is a shade away from the glossy surfaces of her fitted kitchen. Her son has just been dropped off by one of the neighbours.
None of this fits the archetypal image of Medea, which is what makes Mike Bartlett's version of the Euripides classic initially so arresting. Behind the photorealist facade of Ruari Murchison's suburban set, we find not a spurned wife in Corinth, but a single mum living in a new-build residential street just beyond the London commuter belt.
This Medea, played by Rachael Stirling with a take-no-prisoners wit, lives in a world of Richard Curtis movies and Wii Fit games. Defiant and more than a little deranged, she runs rings around her prim, middle-class neighbours (strong turns from Lu Corfield and Amelia Lowdell), as she denies them the security of polite conversation. She can switch in an instant from making a cup of tea to listing the ways she'd like her estranged husband to die.
The contrast is shocking and funny. This Medea is too big for a place like this, her passions too intense, her intelligence too vicious, and in Bartlett's own production, there are an unexpected number of laughs.
Those laughs can quickly turn to distress, however, as Stirling reveals Medea to be a woman suffering severe emotional trauma. She denies being mentally ill, but it's hard to know how else to interpret the behaviour of someone who locks herself in her room, plunges her hand into a pan of boiling water and takes a knife to her only child. As writer, Bartlett doesn't just transfer Euripides to the modern world – he exposes him to the full weight of post-Freudian psychology.
Despite all this illumination, however, the 2,000-year leap from ancient Greece to gossipy middle England comes at a price. It isn't only Medea who is confined and reduced by these circumstances. The play itself seems to get smaller.
Instead of a conquering hero, Adam Levy's Jason is nice but dull in a business suit. His complaints about Medea's behaviour are perfectly reasonable; in these 21st-century terms, she is being over the top and he's right to protest. At such moments, the play becomes a soap-opera episode about a woman reacting badly to a messy divorce, her fate seeming to be more private misfortune than archetypal tragedy.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Published in the Guardian
Posted by Mark Fisher at 2:39 pm