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Helen McCrory interview: ‘Medea is one of the greatest parts you’ll ever play as an actress'

The ‘Medea' actress talks marriage, playing the female Hamlet and her craving for comedy

©Richard Hubert Smith

Over a lengthy career, Helen McCrory has played villains (Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), romantics (Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’) and goons (Cherie Blair in ‘The Queen’). Now she stars as the ultimate anti-heroine, Euripides’s Medea, in a new NT production. She explains why it is the role for women. 

Is Medea a bit like a female Hamlet?
‘It is, it’s one of the greatest parts you’ll ever play as an actress. Except it’s the reverse of Hamlet because he spends three hours worrying and does nothing, whereas Medea takes an hour and 15, massacres the whole fucking stage and walks off. But it’s great because she uses every shred of femininity that she has to do it, and she also has the complexity of guilt.’

Medea does some pretty nasty stuff:  filicide, regicide. Is she a villain?

‘Ben Power’s adaptation focuses on disenfranchisement, on what happens when this highly educated, powerful, manipulative, eloquent woman, is not allowed to be part of society. But it also looks at acts of extreme violence, which often come from long-term brutalisation – which is Medea. She’s a product of a warring society, which is very relevant to today.’

The play is almost 2,500 years old. Why has it endured?
‘It’s the same reason that people love crime dramas: you want to know how she’s going to do it and you’re wondering if this is some chemical imbalance. But it’s not. She basically says: Fuck you. I choose to take back my life. And, even in the twenty-first century, we’re not used to women speaking like that. Although, judging by the two Greek families I know, it’s clear women have always run that society.’

You and your husband Damien Lewis are pretty famous now. Has it been hard keeping your feet on the ground?
‘I have a six-year-old and a seven-year-old. There can be no illusions when one of them is shouting “I’ve run out of toilet paper mummy! Shall I use my hand?” It’s lovely to dress up and go out with your husband. But all of that is really just a by-product of the work we do.’

Is your plan to continue doing theatre? Or is more film and TV on the horizon?

‘I’m just constantly distracted by the next pretty thing in the headlights. I still see myself as building my career up. But I’d really like to do comedy next. I’d really like to do a comic film. Or a comic play, or comic TV, just comedy. I may just set myself up at the end of the street and tell a few gags.’

Medea’ is part of the Travelex £15 season and runs at the National Theatre until Sep 4. The NT live broadcast of 'Medea' is also on Sep 4.

Watch the ‘Medea’ trailer

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