Friday, October 3, 2014

NT Live's Medea

Medea is a tough sell, there's no other way around that fact.  How do you even begin to pitch the idea "we'd like to stage a show about a woman who kills her children"?  It's not a discussion one would want to have in polite society.  Today, thousands of people may watch Discovery Identity stories about filicide, but those are stories about "other people".  Those stories are about people on the other side of the country, or on the other side of the glass, whose crimes are no longer fresh, whose only phase of life the audience is witness to is the "after crime" side.  We can't be held accountable or complicit because we never knew those people "before".  There's nothing we could have done to prevent it, and so, the only thing that remains is the unanimous judgement that what happened was an unnecessary evil, a terrible thing.
But anyone who loves theater knows that part of the joy of it is that the audience is entirely complicit.  We are the silent chorus, buzzing with inner thoughts and reactions, relating what we see and hear to our own lives, our own actions.  During a play, the audience is right in the thick of every interaction, privy to the side thoughts and unspoken desires of characters.  We watch, already knowing the consequences that will result from actions that are, as yet, mere thoughts in characters' minds, but over the course of a another act will become fact. And yet, as the audience, all we can do is witness, we can never interfere.  One of the fascinating things about Medea isn't just that its a tragedy of such enormous proportions that its impact has been felt for millenia, but that the murder at its heart is so determinedly premeditated.  How often are we asked to watch someone plan a murder and follow it through with exacting precision?  It's a far cry from "sit back, relax, and enjoy the show". This is undoubtedly one of the reasons Medea is staged with far less regularity than other classics. And yet, in the right hands, Medea can be a profoundly moving theater experience.
I would have to say that after seeing Carrie Cracknell's version, adapted by Ben Power and featuring Helen McCrory, the National Theatre found the right hands.  Ben Power's version of Euripides' play is a frantic 90 minute storm of human emotion.  Not entirely devoid of a moment or two of humor, this version plays heavily on the idea that Medea identifies herself as a foreigner, not only in Corinth, but in her own marriage.  She can no longer claim she belongs to Jason and she cannot belong to her ancestors anymore after a grievous betrayal, and she certainly does not belong to the land she currently finds herself occupying.  This is not her beautiful country, this is not her beautiful house.  Lost and grieving, her only identity is that of a mother.  In her mind, the only thing she has ever given to the world and, more specifically, to Jason, are her two children.  In this version, it almost seems that an argument could be made for the idea that her murder of the children is an act of reclaiming, or perhaps, claiming for the first time, her identity, not as a mother, but as a woman.  It finds its center around the idea that when Medea calls on her ancestors, she finally discovers where she truly belongs.
At the beginning of the play, the audience is made aware of Medea's previous foul deeds.  It's a certainty that Medea is not a good woman, in any moral sense, but there is also the argument from Medea that all she did, she did to secure Jason's love.  The idea is firmly planted in Medea's mind that none of her choices were ever truly her own.  Now, while that is certainly a point for argument in any classics or philosophy class, here, it is not up for debate,  it is the foundation for Medea's mental state.
In the hands of McCrory, Medea's physical state is equally skewed.  On first appearance she is hunched and tiny, a shaking, angry shell of who she once thought herself to be.  Her costume is baggy men's pants and small tank top.  I got the sense that they were Jason's pants, perhaps the only things of his she had left, but in them, she appears practically gender neutral.  She's first spotted outside, dirty, with ratted hair and constantly red-rimmed eyes.  In comparison, when the chorus steps on stage, they are wearing 50's style, ultra feminine floral print dresses, which draw an even more starker contrast the drab manliness of Medea's outfit.  It's easy to see why Jason would leave this frantic, anxious woman who seems too easily lead by her emotions.  And yet, behind every line, there's a steely power at play; the kind of determination that's born of someone who has finally found their resolve, even if it's in the comfort of revenge.
Throughout the opening of the play, as Medea is coming to terms with her current state, the fact that it's her husband's wedding day, though he left her mere days ago, and that she is being banished from the country by her husband's new father-in-law (who, it turns out, was right to be worried) McCrory makes Medea shake with an excess of grief or wariness or despair.  It's impressive, and I can only imagine, draining.  All it takes is one look at McCrory's Medea to know that she has nothing left to give, or to live for.
And yet, as her plan for revenge takes shape, she transforms.  When she manages to send word to Jason that she'd like to apologize to him for her previous outburst, she appears to him in a flowing white outfit, that it turns out, is a jumpusit, not a dress.  She is a 40s siren, with heels that seem impractical, and yet, she understands the power a female appearance holds over a man.   The effectiveness of this outfit cannot be overstated, in my opinion, and it's one of the standouts of the production.  The white works to both convey a seeming innocence in the beginning and then as the perfect stark canvas for the blood and filth that are splattered across it at the end.  When she hauls the bodies of her children offstage, she no longer seems a woman, she seems like a warrior.  A samurai in bloody sheep's clothing.  It's an effective image to say the least.
I sometimes fear that hyperbole has now become the norm in everyday conversation, but to say that McCrory gives a powerhouse performance seems almost an understatement.  She is unafraid of the ugly cry or the smeared mascara, and yet the whole time, she never comes across as crazy, but instead, determined, calculating.  Not cold, in fact she's the opposite.  She is passionate in the extreme. She is a caged animal backed into a corner who sees a way out, and she'll fight with everything that's in her to get to it. Danny Sapani's Jason is an equal match in their scenes together.  While attempting restrain in hopes that it will calm Medea, Jason is clearly just barely containing his rage and anger and confusion, and it occasionally boils over.  In the scene where they kiss for what turns out to be the last time, it's clear that perhaps the only thing that ever drew these two volatile people together was an unbridled passion that, once domesticated, fizzled out.
One final thing to note is the haunting, pulsing score by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory.  It's a score that is the mimic of a heartbeat, a screech in the dark.  It's unmistakably animalistic and raw, like the chorus' dance moves that accompany it.  What Cracknell has directed is an all-encompassing, visceral attack on the senses.  Something so strong that, even though I was viewing an encore presentation in a theater thousands of miles away, Medea's final cry in the darkness, something that mixed anguish with victory, still felt like it landed its punch squarely between my heart and my stomach.

If you get a chance to see this production, I'd suggest you do so.

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