Headlong Theatre’s Medea, written and directed by Mike Bartlett (whose previous Headlong collaboration, Earthquakes in London, won the company critical acclaim), is like a troublesome teenager. Barlett’s Medea brings Euripides’ tragedy to a modern day suburban row of identical houses. Locked up inside, a grieving Medea (played by the delicious Rachel Stirling) and her now mute son Tom go through their silent rituals of cooking dinner and playing pounding bass music behind closed bedroom doors. Outside, the neighbours peek through twitching curtains and further afield, Jason (Adam Levy) awaits the marriage to his new, younger partner Kate.
The poetic drama of Euripides’ Medea is not so much lost in translation, but given a radical transformation by Bartlett. The character of Medea becomes a symbol of all the women ever repressed by men: “It’s shit being a woman” she declares, and we feel it. Bartlett uses the only child caught between Medea and Jason’s failing relationship as a bargaining chip, eventually sacrificed for the sake of revenge. To add insult in injury, Bartlett reveals the true workings of the male species by having Media coax Jason to the bedroom for one last ravishing night – men are clearly unable to deny their sexual lust even when faced with the words “I hate you” that Medea so proudly proclaims.
Medea’s revenge upon Jason’s new wife by lacing a wedding gift with a poisonous substance that eats at her skin, together with her attacking his son with an axe on the roof of their family home, seems to stem not so much from sinister revenge as from desperation. Unable to turn to the man she loves, she destroys all that is remotely dear to him, and she does so with no care for herself, a martyr without a belief. With all its tragedy and drama the plot should hold any audience’s attention but the reality of Barlett’s Medea is a simmering show that never quite comes to the boil.
Designer Ruari Murchison creates a suburban street from two dimensional flats that split apart to reveal the home’s interior . With red glossed cupboards in the kitchen, luminous green walls in the living room, a ceiling dotted with LED spotlights and a plasma screen attached to the wall, this modern home lacks any homeliness – instead it feels distinctly like Ikea. Murchison’s design is unashamedly flat, with the whole weight of the home seeming to compress upon itself. While this might work well for a metaphor for the play’s dysfunctional family, it forces Bartlett’s direction to spill out onto the staging in front.
In terms of performances, there is a worrying level of two dimensionality. Stirling might be the untapped pressure rocket waiting to explode, but her croaked voice and surface acting don’t penetrate the character beyond face value. This simplification of characters is felt across the production as a whole. The cast seem stifled by the vacuum of Bartlett’s direction and Murchison’s design, lacking the freedom to ignite in fiery passion.
However, Bartlett’s writing is rich and the modern comparison does bring something new to Euripides’ tragedy. When Medea or Jason reach their dramatic conflict, Bartlett slips into poetic language, summoning the Gods themselves to take notice. A clever reworking of the Chorus is found within the character of Pam (Amelia Lowdell) as she delivers the news of Medea’s treachery in murdering Jason’s wife. But it is Bartlett’s man-hating Medea that stings the most, especially with Stirling’s wry smile as she delivers the lines: “I divide men into three groups: wankers, dads and rapists. Wankers need a mum, dads treat us like children and rapists want to fuck us whether we like it or not.”
If truth be told, Bartlett’s writing far excels his directing, Medea bubbles with potential, but it is through a poor design and miserly directing that even when wielding an axe and dripping in blood, the character of Medea doesn’t so much provoke us as numb us.
Medea is playing at Watford Palace Theatre until 27th October, before continuing on a National Tour. For more information and tickets, see the Headlong Theatre website.