The mighty playwright, Euripides, born in circa 480 BC, hit on something big when he wrote his tragedy based on various myths about Medea. It is not clear in these myths if Medea murdered her young sons, but Euripides turned up the flame and decided that she did the brutal deed.
Given our familiarity with his play in the 21st century, it is now not so much a whodunnit as why. When it was first performed at a competitive festival in ancient Athens, all roles, including that of Medea, would have been played by men, to an audience of men. Where were the women? In real life, if they were not slaves, their main task was to look after the household and birth children – preferably male heirs.
In Dominic Cooke’s stunning and devastating production, adapted lucidly by Robinson Jeffers and performed in the round at Soho Place theatre, all the male parts are played with intelligence, imagination, truth and panache by the brilliant Ben Daniels. The chorus of women are seated among the audience, a surprise that feels absolutely right – rather like witnessing a conversation about a contemporary scandal on a bus.
The ingenious bare design (by Vicki Mortimer) suggests a contemporary family home with stairs leading down to a basement. Thankfully, we cannot see what goes on there, but we can hear Sophie Okonedo’s Medea weeping. Before the play begins we might (or might not) notice a small object that has been placed on the table. The object is a tiny red wooden house. Perhaps it is a toy that has been assembled by children. Then something incredibly important happens. Jason, who has betrayed his wife and is about to marry a younger, golden-haired Greek princess, walks onto the stage and dismantles the house as if it were a piece of Lego. The family home is broken into pieces. It’s a throw-away moment, yet it says everything.
Medea is a sorceress who can work magic spells for her friends and against her enemies. It is her magic, combined with her strategic mind and immense physical courage that helped her husband to become a legend when he stole the Golden Fleece from her own father. Clever, young Medea, a foreigner, or barbarian, as the ancient Greeks described anyone not born in their country, fell in love with Jason, eloped with him, married him and birthed his children.
So now, years later in her hour of need, when she is about to be sent into exile with her sons to make things easier for Jason’s new royal life, she poisons his young bride by sending her the gift of an irresistible wedding cape.
This action is not going to help her circumstances or protect her sons from being murdered in revenge. She has a servant, her childhood nurse, played with perfect pitch by Marion Bailey. Her nurse has no societal power. All she can do is run errands for Medea and advise her not to be too reckless in her anger and grief.
[See also: Sylvia at the Old Vic review]
Jason has patriarchy and the law on his side. Does he need anything else? Does he even need charm or a good body or intelligence or empathy or a healthy moral compass? And what about the children in this broken home? Their sweet sons wear party paint on their faces, lick ice cream cones, don’t speak much and try to not notice their parents are at war.
Okonedo is one of the greatest actors on the contemporary international stage. Her formidable Medea will go down as a legend in theatre history. Okonedo shows us what it costs Medea to not be submissive to the men who have power over her fate. When we see her on her knees, begging the king, Creon, for his mercy (she is required to immediately leave her home with her sons), we understand what that costs her, too. Is it enough to be in possession of magic and to hope the gods will be on her side? Maybe Medea has critical thinking on her side, insights into the politics of her position in the home and in the world? After all she has been othered as a foreigner and as a woman. But can critical thinking save her from injustice?
Daniels shows us the performance behind the masks of masculinity. We watch him prowl the circle of the stage as he aligns his posture and physical presence to play Creon, Aegeus and Jason. He is tall, pumped, shoulders back, chin up, powerful – a cross between superman and any man who has to survive a day at work. And when he plays Jason, his physicality changes again. We see a weak but vicious man, physically cowed by his articulate, beautiful wife. It’s all the more complicated because he’s fully conscious that he’s protecting his own interests above those of the mother of his children.
All the same, it is a visceral shock when Medea finally performs the gory deed in the basement of the family home. In this production she has no remorse for her filicide, which is a subversive decision. Okonedo’s Medea has plenty of other feelings, that’s for sure, expressed wordlessly in her eyes, her quivering body, in the snot and tears that gush from her.
The one extraordinary visual moment occurs after the sons are murdered. It begins to rain on stage. Crazed Jason and crazed blood-stained Medea stand under the rain, perhaps sent by the Gods. They are still fighting as rain falls. It will wash away the blood on Medea’s hands, but it will not cleanse the violence of patriarchy, not for Jason, or his sons, or their brutalised, loving mother.
Medea runs at Soho Place, in the West End, London, until 22 April
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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue