Headlong’s Medea, directed and written by Mike Bartlett after Euripedes, dispenses with the suits and minimalism favoured by most contemporary stagings of the tragedies. Instead, the action is transposed with filmic detail to present-day English suburbia. A psychological examination of a woman, this scorching drama fuses the personal and the political to study what can drive someone to commit the worst imaginable crime. It’s clever, unflinching and surprisingly funny – with pitch-black humour, Bartlett’s thoroughly modern Medea stabs at the heart of the family next door and lets the tragedy bleed out.
Ruari Murchison’s set is a row of identical houses, the middle of which cuts away to reveal a typical middle-class interior, all flat-pack wardrobes and polished kitchen surfaces. This soulless domesticity, and the blurred distinction between the public and private (Bartlett’s chorus is a builder working on the neighbour’s house), are central to the action of the play and are perfectly visualised. The sound is also effective; Tom Mills contrasts bland radio pop with a discordant non-diegetic score that sets the heart racing.
Rachael Stirling is electric in the lead role; she creates a character that’s both attractive and repulsive, the type of murderer you’d love to have a drink with. Constantly agitated, with movements too big for the house that contains her, Stirling’s Medea is like an insect, burning under the magnifying glass of neighbourhood watch. Amelia Lowdell and Lu Corfield give strong support as a neighbour and a colleague, quick to watch Medea fall apart but unwilling – or unable – to pick her up again. In this version, Jason is a weak misogynist, who makes Medea into a monster and then punishes her for it, and Adam Levy’s portrayal is suitably nasty.
Unsurprisingly, Bartlett’s update is occasionally problematic – the tension between the classical source material and the contemporary landscape can be jarring. When such freedom has been allowed in the rewrite, it’s unclear why some aspects of the mythology remain.
Given that the play is known primarily for its climax, it’s testament to Bartlett’s skill that I remained on edge throughout the play. However, if the anticipation is built effectively, the execution is a disappointment. Bartlett goes all out in the final scene, and I was left unsure whether it was brilliant or awful, but sure that an understated approach would have been more emotionally powerful. Despite these flaws, it’s an intelligent reworking that manages to comment on modern society through a classic, and finds its most tragic moments in comedy.
This review of Medea was from the Warwick Arts Centre performance. For more shows at the Warwick Arts Centre, see their website.