Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th November, 2012
Writer and director Mike Bartlett has brought Euripides’s millennia-old play bang up-to-date in this engaging and sometimes startling new version. The setting is a new-build suburb of detached houses in an unspecified British town. Friends and neighbours rally around divorcee Medea on the eve of her ex’s marriage to his dolly bird bride. An acute bout of sniping and low-level bitchery from friend (Amelia Lowdell) and neighbour (Lu Corfield) gives us quite a build-up before the eponymous protagonist herself descends the staircase of the doll’s house set.
Medea is unlike the other women. She is wild of hair and eye, and appears to be on the manic end of a bipolar scale. She exudes bitterness through the medium of sarcasm and we begin to appreciate how deeply the split from her husband has damaged her. That’s the set-up, at least. As the action unfolds, we learn there is more to Medea than a bad case of depression…
The landlord turns up – he’s the dolly bird’s father and he wants Medea out of the house pronto (Christopher Ettridge in a performance that would be at home in a Pinter play) and then the husband (Adam Levy) puts in an appearance, trying to be civil only to be greeted with recriminations (that lead to reminiscences and then to goodbye sex).
It seems that Medea is over the worst. There is a ray of hope with a potential new life in her male neighbour’s Spanish villa. She seems ready to make a clean break and start again…
Except Euripides and the ancient story aren’t going to let that happen. This is the calm before the storm. We may have dispensed with some of the classical theatrical conventions (the chorus, the masks) but Bartlett is wise to demonstrate that some of the old ways are still the most effective. The horror and violence happen off-stage and have to be recounted in dramatic monologues, allowing the audience to create the scenes in their imaginations. Suddenly this middle-class suburban backwater is home to shocking murder, born of vengeance and retribution. We see it in the headlines all too often: divorced parent kills the kids to spite the ex, but the play touches us deeper than this topical relevance. It is about our darkest desires to make those who wrong us pay. We are drawn to Medea because of her humour, her situation and her brittle strength (thanks to an electrifying performance by the marvellous Rachael Stirling). We side with her at first. But as her mind deteriorates we are shown this is not the way to go. The ending, on the rooftop, is cathartic for us as the audience – the tension has been released for us, but Medea is left with the agony of an existential prayer to a god who will not help her.
Ruari Murchison’s design brings to mind A Doll’s House in more ways than one, while remaining faithful to what we know of the way the Greeks presented things, with most of the action taking place in the street in front of the house. Mike Bartlett’s script is snappy and darkly funny. There are interludes of dumb show between scenes (replacing choral odes) underscored with music. We see Medea cooking dinner and plunging her hand into a pot of boiling water; in another, she puts her son to bed and has to return to his room to smash the game console he insists on playing through the night… It’s a stylish and effective way to keep the action flowing and reveal more about Medea’s mental state.
It’s a gripping, entertaining piece that, like Medea’s blade, cuts deep. Older than the hills, it feels entirely contemporary.