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Controversial author Rachel Cusk reshapes Euripides's 'Medea' in her own image
You know that friend who has to make everything all about them? That’s basically the definition of controversial writer Rachel Cusk’s career. And now she’s turned her almost religious obsession with herself into adapting the third and final play in the Almeida’s Greeks season.
When ‘Medea’ was announced, a few eyebrows were raised at the fact Almeida boss Rupert Goold would be directing his actor wife Kate Fleetwood in a new version of Euripides’s 2,500-year-old tragedy about a wife who take brutal revenge upon her husband. But the notion that ‘Medea’s autobiographical frisson would come from that quarter falls by the wayside when confronted by the reality of a work that might easily have been called ‘Rachel’.
In Goold’s modern dress production, Medea (only obliquely referred to by that name) is a tortured writer and her family’s principle breadwinner, going through a traumatic divorce with the father of her two children. In real life, tortured writer Cusk was her family’s principle breadwinner, and went through a traumatic divorce with the father of her two children (she wrote a shocking book about it, ‘Aftermath’).
The manner in which Cusk has nakedly mined her own life to adapt this millennia-old story is utterly brazen, slightly irritating and incredibly powerful. After a teasing build, she dares to change ‘Medea’s famously shocking denouement to something more realistic – and it’s no less devastating.
Certainly it doesn’t hurt that Fleetwood is astonishingly good, a semi-feral ball of anger and confusion, with a voice that could command mountains to move.
And though subdued by Goold’s usual standards, splashes of his trademark razzle-dazzle leaven a play that largely consists of bitter arguments. Innovations include the chorus, here a hyperstylised quintet of vacuous mums who resent Medea for finding motherhood hard, and Charlotte Randle’s divine Messenger, an ostentatiously supernatural presence in a play otherwise grounded in harsh reality.
But ultimately Cusk is the dominant personality, rewiring ‘Medea’ into a comment on the emotional brutality of divorce. Of course there is a whiff of self-indulgence; but there’s also an incredible elegance of language, and a battering ram truthfulness that demolishes most doubts about Cusk’s methods. She has filtered the story through the prism of her own life and it blasts out, white hot.