Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels star at the new theatre @sohoplace, a beautiful in-the-round space used to maximum dramatic potential by director Dominic Cooke. Ben Daniels stalks the outer perimeter of the circular stage, coming into the light to portray one of four male roles—the tutor, the husband, the ruler and the ally. He assumes these roles by donning different jackets in a graceful, slow-motion action which enters real time as he enters the lit stage. He is in motion for the whole show, constantly circling the stage and the woman on it.
Sophie Okonedo’s Medea is surrounded by male authority figures. She first emerges from the depths of the stage, a curved staircase leading to a basement which we know will be the scene of the final monstrous act. Medea’s voice is first heard from the depths: ‘Death’, she says over and over. Robinson Jeffers’ 1946 adaptation of Euripides’ scripts fits beautifully in theatre in the round—no extravagant set is needed with such dramatic language, handled by so skilled a cast. Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels are joined by Marion Bailey as the nurse, a role strikingly similar to Shakespeare’s nurse in Romeo & Juliet in which an older woman rears the heroine from a babe and then watches as she plots her own destruction.
‘Never pray for death,’ chimes in a woman of Corinth. The three chorus women played by Amy Trigg, Jo McInnes and Penny Layden, are scattered in the audience, seeming at first to be punters. They blend in well and don’t distract, commenting on the action and warning Medea not to indulge her dark thoughts, for ‘the images the mind makes, they work into life.’ Although they sympathise with Medea she unnerves them. By the end, she insists that they stay and watch.
The chorus represents bystanders to a momentous event and reveals the varying ways in which we all advise and judge our neighbours. They also emphasise Medea’s otherness. ‘I am no Greek woman,’ she says at the beginning. ‘I do not know how much a Greek woman would endure, but I want to die.’ She is a foreign woman in a strange land. Yet ‘solitude is dangerous,’ says the chorus—don’t go down this track, they tell her.
Is Medea mad? This production provides no clear answer. Yet to question her sanity is to undermine her power and agency. Medea’s actions are the result of a logical sequence, and they are her own. ‘Barbarian’, ‘foreigner’, ‘witch’: she has been called them all by the local Greeks and she suppressed them to become a Greek mother and wife to Jason. When he casts her off, she assumes her old identity. In the first scene with Jason and Medea, she reminds him of everything he owes her; five times she saved his life, she left her father for him, she killed her brother. She bore him two sons.
Jason responds with the ultimate insult: she did those things because ‘Aphrodite compelled you.’ Men make their own decision but women are instruments of the gods. In this production, Jason’s words are the turning point. ‘Loathing,’ she replies. ‘Hatred is a bottomless cup.’ When he departs Medea invokes her mentor, the witch Hecate, and the wheel is set in motion. Will Creon kill Medea’s sons to secure his future grandchildren’s inheritance? Will Jason defend them? Medea will not wait to find out. She will decide her own fate and that of her children.
Her power in Greek society evaporated when Jason left her, but she is no common woman—she is descended from kings and witches, and now that her last tether to Corinth has been severed she can call on her native powers to inflict revenge. Medea emerges from the shock of marital separation like Diana, Princess of Wales, looking fabulous in a black revenge dress of her own. Her mind is made up and all we can do is watch.
Like a spider at the centre of her web, she sends out people to do her bidding and waits for news. This is where we see the real dramatic power of the ancient Greek tragedies— the plotting and the action followed by the agonising wait for the consequence. We never see Medea’s rival, the golden-haired daughter of Creon, but we hear of her death in excruciating detail. ‘Tell me everything,’ Medea demands of the nurse, and she does. The nurse is disturbed by the strength of Medea’s hatred for Jason but has no power to resist. She warns the audience instead, ‘women, we must keep evil birds from our hearts.’
As the play reaches its climax Gareth Fry’s sound design asserts itself—a throbbing siren accompanied by a surging red light. Beautifully subtle lighting design by Neil Austin matches Fry’s sound to create an ominous thunderstorm at the end—a slow rumble and a flicker of the lights as fog forms and the heavens open. Before the end, there is a poignant reunion between Jason and his sons, while a calm Medea watches on.
The audience sees the life this family could have enjoyed had Jason not betrayed them all, and Medea sees that Jason still loves his sons. She must confirm this before deciding to follow through with her plan. The boys, played on press night by Oscar and Eiden-River Coleman, add an immediacy to Medea’s decision. She stands upright with them on stage, sheltering her ‘brave falcons’ in her arms, not cowering or weeping. ‘I will not die as a pigeon dies’, she tells us.
What is striking about this play is how sympathetic it is to a woman who commits the worst crime of all. This play was first performed 2,500 years ago to an all-male audience and it grips us still today because Medea’s final act has a disturbing logic to it. Her husband has taken everything from her, so how can she punish him sufficiently? What is the ultimate price? Medea reaches her decision during these 90 minutes, and she goes through with it. As the nurse says, ‘she never lacked courage.’ The final image of this production places her at the centre of power— she stands at the top of the stairs while Jason, representing all men, cowers at her feet.