LONDON (Reuters) - Medea always gets her revenge for being jilted by Jason, but in an updated version of the ancient Greek play she is recast as a writer who does it by exposing her actor husband as a two-timing lout in a television sitcom that becomes a hit.
A no-nonsense Kate Fleetwood turns in a riveting performance in the title role of the 2,500-year-old tragedy at London’s experimental Almeida Theatre in a rework of the Euripides’s play by the Canadian-born writer Rachel Cusk.
“You’ve taken away my history,” the gaunt-faced Medea tells Jason (Justin Salinger).
Not only has he moved out to live with King Aegeus’s much younger daughter, but he also has designs on getting his and Medea’s two young sons to come live in his palatial new home, where he will shower them with new iPhones and skiing holidays.
The production that opened this month caps a half-year-long exploration of Greek tragedies, grouped under the rubric “Greeks”, that began with Aeschylus’s “Oresteia”, continued with Euripides’s late play “Bakkhai” and winds up with “Medea”.
The reworkings have won mostly rave reviews from London critics. Director Robert Icke’s production “Oresteia” transferred in August from the tiny Almeida to the West End, where it is reaching much larger audiences.
But wrenching ancient Greek dramas into the 21st century, as these productions have done with modern language, contemporary settings and by introducing modern plot points, has also served to underscore how tricky it can be to modernize the ancients.
For example, would a ruler of any modern civilized country sacrifice his daughter in order to assure success in battle, as Agamemnon does in “Oresteia”?
Icke told an interviewer he saw the work, in which the sacrifice sets off a chain reaction of murders, including her mother Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon, as being like “The Sopranos” - but would Tony kill his own daughter?
In what is perhaps an overcorrection from the bloodiness of “Oresteia”, Cusk, who famously wrote of her animal instinct to keep her children when she was divorced from her photographer husband some years ago, has taken a liberty or two in the usual ending of “Medea”.
Maybe Cusk did not think it necessary to go for the full bloodbath, since she had already made the point several times that women are pawns in a man’s world, in Euripides’s time or now.
“Did you know beauty is a mirror, a trick the Gods have devised?” the messenger (Charlotte Rundle, made up to be half male, half female), says in the play’s closing moments.
The penis is where the battle between right and wrong is fought, she says, noting: “Truth must win the bout, or all hell is let loose.”
In this production Medea exposes the truth, and gets her revenge, but audiences familiar with the play may wish a little more hell had been let loose.
(Michael Roddy is the Entertainment Editor for Reuters in Europe. The views expressed are his own)
Editing by Louise Ireland