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Medea by Euripides @sohoplace

For a masterclass in scene study, you’d really have to go some distance to beat the formidable Sophie Okonedo (Medea) and Ben Daniels (Jason/Tutor/Creon/Aegeus/Servant). By having Daniels multi-role as all the male characters (save the two young sons of Medea and Jason), he shows off his range in voice, carriage and physicality on Vicki Mortimer’s pared-down in-the-round set with a minimal and subdued wardrobe. But I could not help but wonder if the choice to turn Euripides’ tragedy into almost a tidy two-hander was motivated by something other than its creative power.

Sophie Okonedo in Medea @sohoplace. Photo credit Johan Persson.
Sophie Okonedo in Medea @sohoplace. Photo credit Johan Persson.

One hundred years after Medea was performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens, Aristotle explained in The Poetics:

Tragedy… is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude… the component events [of the story] ought to be so firmly compacted that if any one of them is shifted to another place, or removed, the whole is loosened up and dislocated; for an element whose addition or subtraction makes no perceptible extra difference is not really a part of the whole.

In other words, not only did Aristotle want storytelling kept tight – which at a pacey 90-minutes director Dominic Cooke manages – but he also warned against the subtraction of any element that does make a perceptible extra difference. Cooke draws on American poet Robinson Jeffers’ 1947 adaptation of the Greek tragedy, which was a multi-Tony hit on Broadway three-quarters of a century ago. The Jeffers text is already honed for efficiency with a mid-century Atlantic audience in mind, but it has nine named characters, a chorus, and various servants waiting on the royals who are at the centre of the plot. Cooke places the chorus of three Corinthian women (Jo McInnes, Amy Trigg, Penny Layden) amongst the audience which, on one hand, is an inspired move in that it enlists the entire house as a wider, silent, chorus of scale. It also means, however, that the house lights remain fairly bright for the duration of the piece such that the production’s mood relies disproportionately on Gareth Fry’s sound design (which veers into the gothic and occasionally melodramatic) rather than Neil Austin’s lighting. Crucially, however, by shrinking both the leading and supporting casts – with all servants eliminated – and keeping just the Nurse (Marion Bailey) plus giving only one small appearance of a slave amongst Daniels’ multiple roles, Cooke has dislocated and underserved two key components: royalty and deity.

Cooke’s production retains a description of Medea as ‘a witch, but not evil’ and speaks of her ‘wild wisdom’ (‘All the people of her country are witches. They know about drugs and magic. They are savages, but they have a wild wisdom.’) but somewhat glosses over the fact that Medea is not only the daughter of a king but is literally part-witch and part-goddess: she is descended from the famous witch Circe (the one who turned Odysseus’ ungrateful sailors into pigs) and Helios the sun god. It seems in submission to simplification, Cooke takes a political and magical story about power, betrayal and vengeance and, instead of conveying its implications and magnitude, trivialises it into the world’s most horrific custody battle with some leadenly obvious modern parallels about colonialism and ‘otherness’.

The decision to have Daniels enact all the adult male roles, including two kings and her husband/betrayer, also appears to have an unintended consequence. Instead of highlighting the asymmetrical power to which Medea is subjected, it pulls focus from the titular character as we marvel at Daniel’s transformation when it’s clear or have to think about who he’s supposed to be for a minute when it’s not instantly obvious.

At the heart of this play is an unthinkable and evil act committed by a woman. Portraying its perpetrator as sympathetic – something Okonedo delivers – affords rich and exciting theatrical opportunity, but it is also a complex undertaking that relies on its constituent elements and contradictions: it should be troubling and cathartic. To shift a world of dynastic alliances, human sacrifice, fate, and gods to another place – of 21st-century monotheism, psychology and assumed domestic dynamics – loosens up the whole exactly in the way Aristotle warned not to do.

Unlike Marina Carr’s magnificent adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Girl on an Altar (staged last year at the Kiln Theatre), this production is not an arterial injection of pharmaceutical-grade Greek tragedy with modern resonance. Cooke’s Medea treats this great myth rather like a John Lewis Christmas advert arranges its annual soundtrack: it’s topical, heart-rending, familiar, rather obvious, and willing to compromise emotion for sensation and sentimentality. It’s also high quality and may well be a hit. For a series of dramatic sketches based on Euripides delivered exquisitely by two of Britain’s most masterful actors, Medea is meritorious. If, however, you want profound catharsis, this Medea is a bit meh.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

What could turn a woman from a lover into a destroyer of love?

Medea tells the story of a woman laid bare by grief and rage, and her terrible quest for revenge against the men who have abandoned her.

Sophie Okonedo brings her visceral, mercurial brilliance to literature’s most titanic female protagonist, whose complexity and contradictions have kept audiences on the edge of their seats, unable to look away, for almost 2,500 years.

The production stars Sophie Okonedo (Medea) and Ben Daniels (Jason/Tutor/Creon/Aegeus+). They are joined by Marion Bailey (Nurse), Penny Layden (3rd Woman of Corinth), Jo McInnes (1st Woman of Corinth) and Amy Trigg (2nd Woman of Corinth). At this performance the Boys are played by Oscar Coleman and Eiden-River Coleman.

Design Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Neil Austin
Sound Gareth Fry
Casting Director Amy Ball
Children’s Casting Amy Ball and Verity Naughton
Movement Director Lucy Cullingford
Associate Director Tanuja Amarasuriya
Production Manager Igor
Costume Supervisor Helen Johnson
Wigs Designer Sam Cox
Props Supervisor Mary Halliday
Vocal/Dialect Coach Jeannette Nelson
Produced by Dominic Cooke and Kate Horton for Fictionhouse Limited, Nica Burns, and Kate Pakenham Productions

Dominic Cooke and Kate Horton for Fictionhouse Limited, Nica Burns, and Kate Pakenham Productions present
By Euripides
Adapted by Robinson Jeffers
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Playing until https://sohoplace.org/

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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