Thoughts on Medea

MEDEA AT THE NATIONAL

The most haunting, the most tragic of Greek heroines Euripides’ Medea has an inexplicable cultural stamina that defies time, form, historical and literary referents. “This is a contest for heroes”, she tells us seething with pathos and anger. And it is.

In Greek mythology Medea was the daughter of King Aeetis of Colchis niece of the Homeric seductress Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, and later wife to Jason. Euripides, defying strict mythological accounts, portrays Medea as plotting the downfall of the House of Corinth when Jason leaves her for the Corinthian king’s daughter, Kreusa. She does this with the most chilling degree of precision and premeditation and, as we follow her intricate physiological journey through the play, we know that Euripides’s is not a play about marital breakdown. This is a play about agency; about taking control of one’s own destiny. It is also a play about femaleness, a play written by a man with a fine lens into the state of womanhood and the female psyche. Let us not forget that in the thirty or so surviving Greek plays of the classical period all three tragedians have bequeathed to us some female heroines: Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, Electra, Andromache, Sophocles’ unconquerable Antigone, Electra, Alcestis, Helen and of course the tragic Iphigeneia. Anthropological symbolism aside, these are proto-feminist paradigms to be reckoned with. What sets Medea apart, thematically, is her calculating and progressive sense of agency: the marital betrayal is dealt with logically, with a degree of deliberation and shrewdness that would behove Odysseus or Henry VIII. What sets the play apart dramaturgically is that, for the first time, a murder is committed on stage and not narrated. And it is committed by a mother on her own offspring. Her agonising dithering is enough to rattle the bones of the most indifferent audience member:

Why are your eyes staring at mine, children? Why do you smile that very last smile?
aiai [Ah, Ah!] What will I do? My heart is not in it,
women, when I look at the gleaming eyes of my children.
I could not do it. Goodbye my plans of before. I shall take my children with me.

But Euripides is intent on giving us a heroine not a softie. Her sense of pride overrides the maternal:

Do I want to be a laughing stock, letting my enemies go unpunished?
These things must be endured. Damn my cowardice!
How could I let soft words into my heart?

Through an act of filicide, Medea shatters the foundations of legitimate male perpetuation. Her sons have been granted safe asylum in Corinth but on the proviso that she must return to Athens and let them be raised by her mortal enemy, their legitimate sire, Jason, King Creon’s new son-in-law. She bore them, yet they do not belong to her; they are a tool of patrilineal transmission of property and title. Medea reverses the paradigm and invites a flaccid Jason to witness the heinous result of his betrayal.

Helen McCrory as the National Theatre’s first Medea is triumphant. Loyal to the Euripidean theme, she lives the tragedy, she embodies the complication, the follows the progression, she wears her blood stained virginal white gown with pathos, with pride, with aplomb. Gifted with a presence and vocals perfectly suited to represent epic heroines, she conquers and terrorises us with unsurpassed skill.

Sadly, Ben Power’s treatment of the text is a disappointment. He deprives us of some of the most passionate lines continually striving to make the text ‘relevant’ and approachable. He humanises Jason and dispossesses him of some of his most potent utterances in his effort to make him more politically correct. Euripides’ text has survived nearly two and a half thousand years; dramaturgy is superfluous. Carrie Cracknell’s direction lacks confidence. She needlessly goes all out to do something with the text, to explain it us, even at times to demonstrate her own skills in blending contemporary dance with theatre. She pointlessly splits the stage into an upstairs where Creon’s palace and the wedding celebrations are taking place and Medea’s downstairs, dark and claustrophobic abode. There is no need for such subtitling; Euripides’ Medea speaks to us directly without any need for director’s tricks or clever sophistries. Despite those small misgivings, the show is an enormous success, alive, relevant, electric: the story of a woman wronged.

Euripides and his leading lady Helen McCrory deserve five stars for taking us on this perennial journey deep into the human psyche and showing us what we are all capable of when inflamed by injustice, insult and betrayal.

(c) Effie Samara 2014