Medea Review 2001

Thursday, 1 February, 2001

This production of “Medea” by Euripides was seen at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin last summer where it received rave reviews. It has now arrived in the West End with a new cast featuring the talented Fiona Shaw who gives her best performance since her Richard II at the National in 1995.

This Greek tragedy is translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael and is brilliantly directed by Deborah Warner, who has transported the play to a modern setting.

The story concerns Medea, a woman who when betrayed by her husband seeks revenge by killing her children and her husband’s lover.

This play is not for the faint hearted as the children are paraded on stage covered in blood, a startling reminder of the horrors uncontrolled emotions are able to stir. It is a powerful play that is both ghastly and disturbing, yet at the same time is not heavily depressive. This is mainly because of the magnificent performance of Fiona Shaw in the title role, who gives everything. She dominates the stage enlarging the character of Medea into a mythological figure. She embodies the dark side of the human psyche, torn by hatred and revenge to destroy everything it as ever loved. It is a great actor who is able to play this tragic character and when necessary have the courage to use mannerisms to express humour in order to fully explore her character. Jonathan Cake as ‘Jason’, her husband, does his best, but he is outshone by the power of Shaw’s performance. In fact, Fiona Shaw looks a physical and emotional wreck by the end of the play!

This play is over 2,000 years old, yet it is still relevant today. If you thought that relationships that destroyed lives were a modern thing, then this play is a stark reminder that it is actually a ‘human condition’. As unbelievable at it may seem that a mother could murder her children just to get revenge on her wayward husband, one only has to read the newspapers of what people have done in today’s modern world because of jealousy and revenge.

This production has received some good and bad notices from the popular press…..NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says “Miss Shaw scores a direct hit” He goes on to say, “The fury of marital warfare, fought to the death, is unerringly captured.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “The performance and the production sometimes seem overelaborate, even fussy; yet Euripides’ grim tale comes across with clarity.” PAUL TAYLOR for the INDEPENDENT says, “marvellous modern-dress production……The production is full of such brilliantly telling images….An unforgettable evening. MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “Deborah Warner's production,…left me with mixed feelings. While no one could accuse it of shirking the play's violence, it banishes the rhetorical formality of antique tragedy to replace it with a contemporary rhetoric of its own.” JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Purists may wince at the liberties taken by Deborah Warner's Medea, but thee's no denying that the end justifies the means." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH did not like the production saying , “This is a production that robs Euripides of both poetry and any sense of classical restraint and decorum.” He goes on to say that Fiona Shaw was “strangely unmoving, because the performance is so showy”.

This thought provoking tragedy is fresh, modern and thoroughly gripping.

Not to be missed!!

(Darren Dalglish)

How extraordinary, how powerful theatre can be at its greatest, and there can be no better demonstration of this in the West End at the moment than Deborah Warner’s production of Medea, at the Queen’s Theatre. This hopelessly tragic tale is as alive today as it was when Euripedes wrote it, two and half millennia ago.

To relate the story would detract from the tragic strength of the piece – suffice to say the 90 minutes of electric energy left me exhausted and drained, once Medea’s jealousy had run its course and done its worst. The intensity of Shaw’s performance is staggering. It is a rare quality that she possesses that allows her to reach such levels of fervour night after night, allowing the desperation of Medea’s situation seemingly genuinely to consume her entirely. Yet through all this torture and anguish and despite the ultimate doom towards which we are propelled, the piece is not without some humour, offering relief from the impending and inevitable gloom towards which Medea hurtles.

Whilst the action is fundamentally all about Shaw’s Medea, there are some good supporting roles from Jonathan Cake as Jason (showing all the violent bad temper that we most recently enjoyed in Baby Doll) and Jenny Galloway as the nurse. The traditional role of the chorus is cleverly intertwined with the action on stage, offering direct conversation with Medea not purely commentary as would have been originally intended. Mention should also be made of the haunting vocal underscoring of Rhonwen Hayes, completing Warner’s truly brilliant all-round artistic presentation.

The set works well – the juxtaposition of the innocence of the children, their toys scattered about the stage, and the violence of the ultimate climax, is stark, as the play moves inexorably towards its inevitable, truly tragic conclusion. The baron, open space supports the action, and there is no need for anything complex or intricate. The play is, after all, focused on Medea and the unfolding tragedy. I thought, in particular, that the climax of the play was spectacular, with the lighting and limited set being used to tremendous effect.

This is not a production for the faint-hearted, nor is it a play for those that are not prepared to engage with what unfolds before them, but as a piece of drama, it is tremendously powerful and will most certainly leave its mark – and all this is still the case, 2,500 years after the play was conceived.

Tom Keatinge

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