“I am a modern woman, exploring my options, making a decision”
Mike Bartlett’s Medea initially seems a world away from Euripides’ original. With a new version written for Headlong and directed by himself, Bartlett transplants Rachael Stirling’s Medea into stultifying Home Counties suburbia, vibrantly captured by Ruari Murchison’s set. In this small town where her husband Jason grew up, she has long been viewed as a too proud outsider and when he leaves her for the much younger daughter of their landlord, she sinks into a deep and angry depression. Her wrath is all-consuming, pushing even her maternal instincts aside as she barely engages with her son Tom, left mute since his father departed, in her relentless pursuit for vengeance.
Even before she arrives onstage, Stirling’s presence dominates proceedings like a threatening storm cloud. Her eyes flashing with coruscating wit and scarcely concealed contempt for those around her, even the making of cups of tea feels like a declaration of war as she seethes with rage at what her life has become. There’s a brutally blunt humour to her, especially in her interactions with those neighbours – Lu Corfield’s compassionate Sarah and Amelia Lowdell’s sharper Pam – but there’s also traumatic emotional damage, eye-wateringly evinced in a highly disturbing kitchen scene.
Stirling never lets us forget the deep intelligence at the heart of Medea as she laments the position of women in today’s society, but that goes hand in hand with her callous arrogance and desperate fury and it makes one wonder that she has lasted in suburbia as long as she has. Adam Levy’s Jason doesn’t quite do enough to suggest the destructive seductive power that ought to lie between this pair, but there’s quietly powerful work from local young actor Joseph Howse as Tom, so much the real victim as his parents rage around him. The relocation of the play subtracts some of the universality of Greek tragedy but replaces it with a contemporary vivacity that passes astute commentary on this slice of society.
As the play builds to its vengeful climax though, the grounds of Bartlett’s adaptation shift abruptly with an overt embracing of Greek tragic convention that had previously only been flirted with, as in Paul Brendan’s construction worker chorus. Lowdell copes admirably with the lengthy and vivid declamation that reveals what has happened at Jason and Kate’s wedding, loading clear-sighted emotion into her voice which more than makes up for the dastardly deeds being described rather than portrayed. But Medea’s final devastating discourse is a leap too far as her mode of speech morphs out of all recognition, denying the character the caustic intelligence that has marked her journey thus far and puncturing the mood of what should be a scorching climax – the final development of the set doesn’t help here either.
As a modern take on an ancient form, Bartlett courted controversy from the off with this adaptation but interestingly, it is one that recasts the story into an occasionally highly effective and subtly different light. Liberated from the weight that accompanies the historic source material, this production is better able to interrogate the private/public sphere clash that characterises Medea’s ragings in a much more intimate setting with a bruising candour, as Stirling gives a performance that simply demands to be seen. That intimacy is somewhat undone by the swerve of the final act to cleave more closely to Euripides, where Bartlett may well have been better suited to pursue the courage of his earlier conviction to tell his own story.