Adam Levy as Jason and Rachael Stirling as Medea


19th October 2012

Medea at Watford Palace Theatre

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Whatever your expectations of 'Medea', even in a contemporary staging, the set designed by Ruari Murchison for this new production will wrongfoot you from the start. What you take to be a backdrop – a huge photographic representation of a suburban newbuild­ somewhere in estuary England – turns out to conceal an entire domestic interior, the location of Medea’s former happiness and her present anguish. The ‘wall’ opens and closes in different directions as the action demands; it’s used to great dramatic effect, serving both to pull us in and push us away at the same time. Intimacy and distance; distance and intimacy… it’s a perfect metaphor for the breakdown of the marital relationship played out before us.

It’s probably inappropriate to covet the kitchen, but I did. Apart from the single oven, though; I prefer a double, myself. With a halogen hob. And if that sounds trite, I’m sorry, but when you’re watching what the Watford Palace calls ‘one of the most timeless and primal myths of western civilisation’, there are moments when you just need to think of something mindless…

…not that it’s easy, actually, to focus anywhere than on this ‘chilling study of passion, love and vengeance’, in which Mike Bartlett (who has both rewritten and directed Euripides’ classical masterpiece) transforms the heroine into Ms Everywoman, 21st century-style. Her husband has left her; her ‘friends’ are more interested in scoring points off each other and digging out the latest gossip; her child won’t talk to her any more.

The fine line between tragedy and comedy is oh-so-carefully navigated here. It’s odd and surprisingly distressing to be amused as someone endures a breakdown on stage, but many of the lines are very funny – some indeed are proper laugh-out-loud funny, while others prompt a rueful half-smile, in recognition of truths that have persisted down the centuries and are no less applicable now than they were when Euripides first put 'Medea' down on paper (wax? papyrus?) nearly 2,500 years ago… lines like ‘whatever we women do, it’s irrational, emotional’ and ‘nobody likes a clever woman’. As the play goes on, though, even the obvious jokes don’t generate much laughter, as the onstage grief and passion swells and festers. It’s increasingly painful to be there.

Rachael Stirling (daughter of Diana Rigg who herself delivered the role memorably in 1992 in both London and New York) is outstanding as Medea. I’ll admit to initial misgivings, uncertain whether her early wildness and artificiality was acted mental frailty or actor’s hesitation, but she inhabited the role superbly. You wouldn’t want this Medea for a friend, but it’s hard not to feel for her, or to admire her intellect and clarity of vision.

I don’t know, really, what I make of Medea – the character, not the play itself, although it’s hard to separate the two because she permeates everything so insidiously. Do I like her? Am I supposed to like her? Does it matter? At every level, whether in an original version or a new reimagining, 'Medea' is challenging and demanding exploration of gender relations and gender stereotyping on a universal and personal level. Mike Bartlett and his marvellous cast (the supporting roles are equally convincing) have made gripping theatre; even though you know how it’s going to end, you can’t help hoping that it will be different.

I’d be lying if I said 'Medea' was an easy watch; it’s not. But it is stunning. Just stunning.

Continues until 27 October

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