My big fat Greek tragedies: on new productions of Medea and Oresteia

The decision to “Greek it up” for half a year has given the Almeida a bold and engrossing revisit to the creation myths of theatre.

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There has been a twist in the wine list at the Almeida over the past six months, with reds and whites from Greece lined up behind a bar that also serves three different snacking plates named “the Oresteia”, “the Bacchae” and “the Medea”, in honour of the three productions that make up the venue’s exploration of Greek tragedy.

A theatregoer with knowledge of what Medea does might be queasy about a meal inspired by her, but the branded catering is a sign of how completely the Almeida has adopted a project for which it has been rewarded with long queues, cooing reviews and, in the case of the adaptation of Aeschylus’s story of Orestes, a West End transfer few would have predicted for a 2,500-year-old script. Each play has been modernised in dress and setting, with the finale, the artistic director Rupert Goold’s version of Medea (to 14 November), using a text by the novelist Rachel Cusk. She recasts the discarded wife of the king of Corinth as a novelist and Medea’s former husband, Jason, as a narcissistic film star who leaves her and their two sons after an affair with someone younger.

As a first-time playwright, Cusk proves adept at both monologue and dialogue: her text, while more physically and linguistically graphic than Euripides about why Jason favours the other woman’s body, retains poetry: “Trust is like a pane of glass/When it’s clean you hardly know it’s there/But smash it and you’re cut to shreds.” Kate Fleetwood and Justin Salinger as the unhappy couple – rawly shrunken and smugly enhanced respectively – have marital rows with such unnerving intensity that it feels like waking up in a hotel room to find that your neighbours have crashed through the communicating door during a final split-up fight. Savage imaginative touches in the production include the chorus of Corinthian women becoming north London domestic goddesses, chanting about house prices and their hubbies’ promotions.

Yet the production makes one strange, clumsy stumble. As they explore aspects of humanity that have remained universal – grief, greed, lust – these ancient plays have constantly been seen as topical: one producer of EastEnders would urge the writers, when ratings fell, to “Greek it up”, meaning storylines featuring murder, betrayal, even incest. Intriguingly, Medea was identified as the one Athenian plot that could not be retold in soap, as a character who committed matricide would destabilise mid-evening entertainment. The Almeida, which doesn’t have to worry about Ofcom, has proved as squeamish as peak-time TV when it comes to this plotline. Cusk and Goold duck out of making its protagonist the child-killer and mistress-murderer of the original, allowing her a more sympathetic revenge. The point of Medea is to get the heroine explicably to that point. The substitute feels like taking a glug of one of those Greek wines on sale in the foyer and finding it’s alcohol-free.

By contrast, the middle play in the Almeida Greeks season – James Macdonald’s staging of Bakkhai, Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides’s masterpiece – suffered from too much fidelity to the inheritance. The classically exact use of three actors to play all the central roles confused the impact of a narrative that, depicting a crackdown on a hedonistic cult, also has less contemporary resonance than the other Attic tragedies.

The gold medallist in the Almeida season is the director-writer Robert Icke for his ­rewrite of the Oresteia, which, to satisfy ­demand, has moved to the Trafalgar Studios in central London (until 7 November). The play has Agamemnon (Angus Wright) sacrificing his daughter in order to get the gods on the side of his foreign policy. Religion and politics have become so entwined in our times that it proves worryingly easy to imagine a contemporary leader could have his kid killed to win a war and then go on TV to lie about it; or that his wife, Clytemnestra (Lia Williams), might enact a revenge as bloody as the real Medea’s. Goold’s decision to “Greek it up” for half a year has given the Almeida a bold and engrossing revisit to the creation myths of theatre.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy