It’s pretty remarkable seeing one of the world’s oldest plays in one of its newest theatres, and also seeing how in that gap of almost two-and-a-half millennia the role of women in society hasn’t changed as much as we like to think.
Dominic Cooke’s resolutely traditional production of Euripides’s tragedy comes with few bells and whistles. Yes there’s a bit of onstage rain and it’s done in modern dress, but mostly it relies on the cast to deliver Robinson Jeffers’s archly faithful translation (itself 77 years old) with as much grimness as they can muster.
And boy do they muster. Barely a line is uttered without a tremulous ‘ohh’ or ‘ahh’, but rather than sounding ancient and creaky, it comes with wave after wave of horrible power. There’s Ben Daniels pacing around Vicki Mortimer’s simple brick circle design like a wolf, slipping on a jacket or undoing a shirt button to slip into the different male characters: Jason, Creon, Aegeus. The rest of the cast are women, three of them peppered in the audience plus the always excellent Marion Bailey’s deferential, desperate nurse on stage.
All of that would be fine on its own: captivating, but maybe a bit too trad. All those messengers popping in to tell us what’s happened offstage; all the invoking of gods and names of obscure Greek islands.
But along comes Sophie Okonedo, offstage to begin with, her first words ‘Death, death!’ and she certainly brings it. The control Okonedo has over her performance is extraordinary. Her Medea cuts so quickly from a broken, grieving, cheated wife to an entirely self-possessed, carefully scheming queen that it’s impossible to know which extreme to believe. She’s crying one second, smiling the next, charming, then repellent, screaming at the audience: ‘You’ve come to watch the barbarian woman endure betrayal.’ Victim or villain? Or can’t she be both?
With the chorus women planted in the audience, we too are cast as members of Greek society – ‘We’re Greek, we’re civilised,’ says one chorine – who are pitted against the foreigner Medea, goaded into thinking she’s evil for (spoiler) killing her kids. But as Okonedo stands there in a black dress and with a dizzying mix of cool logic and abject desperation, she throws open a whole series of questions about how much (or little) society believes women, believes their emotions, casts them as manipulators or temptresses.
To keep us on edge there’s a constant rumble of tense scoring from sound designer Gareth Fry, while Neil Austin keeps the audience permanently, nervously lit. But none of it gets in the way. Instead, Cooke has faith that the audience don’t need flashy updates. Just allow the ancient text to speak for itself, and let Okonedo do the rest.