London’s royal National Theatre Updates Euripides’ Medea for National Theatre Live.

Euripides’ Medea, the classic Greek tragedy of a mother who kills her own children, has shocked audiences for over two thousand years. National Theatre Live provides us with a fresh, updated version by playwright Ben Power and director Carrie Cracknell. The result is deliciously evil. The new production is spine-chilling, particularly given the shockingly effective work of Helen McCrory in the title role.

In this spare and clear retelling of the Greek tragedy, a divorce drama comes into clear focus. No wonder the Greeks wrote these plays as cautionary tales for both Greek society in general, and for its leaders in particular. Medea is the tale of oppression and desperation, of what actions people take when pushed to their limits.

The play poses reasons for violence when people are oppressed, or are made to feel oppressed. Medea is clearly a woman with nothing else to lose. She has lost her homeland, her family, her identity, and her very self-worth. And while the play effectively portrays her seesawing debate between filicide or not, it shows us a sane, fully reasoning woman. And ultimately, this is what makes the play so unnerving to a modern audience.

Praises abound for this production. At the very top of my praise heap is Helen McCrory’s performance. Unquestionably, McCrory delivers the performance of a lifetime. She carries the work from start to finish in the most authoritative way. Breathtaking. Also noteworthy is Michaela Coel as the nurse/narrator. Regrettably, Danny Sapani as Jason and Toby Wharton as Jason’s attendant were not of the same caliber. However, the brilliance of McCrory’s performance overshadows these defects.

Kudos too to playwright Ben Power, who delivers an especially clear, cogent, and modern new version of the Euripides text. Designer Tom Scutt’s split-level stage design is compelling too, providing the audience with simultaneous views of both the claustrophobic private space of Medea and her family with the overall nuptials within the city of Corinth, where Jason, Medea’s “ex,” is soon to marry the daughter of the Corinthian king.

A chilling moment comes at the start, delivering the contrast highlighted by this effective stage design. As the play opens, the lights focus our sight on a small boy waking on his sleeping bag. He quickly rises up a flight of stairs to areas which, initially appearing as restricted areas for play given the child’s quick and hesitant steps, soon appear to hold preparations for a wedding party. Clearly, this is an area where children are restricted. And with a touch of naughty insistence, the child fingers the opening chords of the play’s music on an upright piano. This was a completely haunting scene, and serves well to encapsulate the unfolding drama before the audience.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack of this modern Medea is spot-on. With original music written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, of the English electronic duo Goldfrapp, the musical score is haunting, jarring, and completely appropriate to drive the narrative forward. In sum, kudos to director Carrie Cracknell who delivers an original, 21th century woman who is head and shoulders above and beyond the traditional Greek society’s definition of femininity. Don’t miss a replay of this tour de force.

Check the website of National Theatre Live for details about US showings and for a cinema broadcast near you.

Armin’s Grade:  A

by Armin Callo, Theatre & Arts Critic