'Medea' review – Sophie Okonedo takes on the patriarchy in this spellbinding staging

Read our four-star review of Medea at Soho Place, starring Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels, playing through 22 April. Get Medea tickets on London Theatre.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s the most unthinkable act in theatre – and yet given a kind of horrifying reasonableness in Dominic Cooke’s brooding production of Euripides’ Medea. Using the intimate, in-the-round confines of London’s most exciting new venue, he ensures we are both witness to and complicit in a domestic tragedy (a husband’s betrayal; a wife and mother’s terrible revenge), although both the amphitheatre-like shape and Sophie Okonedo’s spellbinding performance also give it a mythic quality.

Cooke’s 90-minute, modern-dress staging begins with Jason knocking over a table and chairs and dragging them into the aisles – casual destruction of their home. He has left Medea, and their young sons, so that he can make a more strategic marriage: one to the daughter of King Creon. Having a Black actress playing Medea (who is labelled a “foreigner” and a “barbarian”) makes the description of that golden-haired princess particularly striking.

Power is at the root of this tale. Medea – who was once herself a princess, and a descendent of a sun god – sacrificed hers to help Jason succeed. Now, she is alone and friendless; she betrayed her own family and country for him. Jason seeks power through his remarriage, and seems to resent that he ever needed Medea, while Creon fears her and uses his royal power to banish her: at the start of the play, she learns that she has been cast into exile. If she protests, she’ll be branded jealous or mad. As Okonedo spits out: “It is a bitter thing to be a woman.”

Cooke uses the 1946 text by American poet Robinson Jeffers, which is a wonderful mix of lyrical and wryly colloquial. In parts, this is a surprisingly funny production – one that plays interesting games by making its characters so aware of being watched. After Creon pitilessly demands Medea depart, he pastes on a fake smile for the crowd and protests that he’s “not a tyrant”. Medea hardly needs condemn Jason to us – she simply lets him hang himself with lines like “I must look forward to younger children”, then watches for our reaction.

Our involvement is heightened by having Medea’s nurse (an excellent Marion Bailey) directly addressing us, and by placing three cast members (Jo McInnes, Amy Trigg and Penny Layden) in the audience. They are women of Corinth, and this voyeurism is apparently expected – Medea observes that there are no secrets in Greece. Jeffers’s text is alert to the colonial echoes here: Jason arrogantly assumes he’s done Medea a favour by bringing her to a more “civilised” land; Medea turns that on its head by sneering that these civilised people will engage love for gold, and using that knowledge in her revenge plot.

Cooke also makes the very effective choice to have Ben Daniels play all the men in the story – so making it clear that this is Medea versus not just Jason, but the patriarchy. Daniels shape-shifts impressively with the aid of a satchel or a jacket, added to his military fatigues-like combat trousers and boots, going from the boys’ concerned tutor to an uptight Creon, brutish, blinkered Jason, and, in stark contrast with the latter, a super-camp Aegeus.

Opposite them, Okonedo is initially an exhausted, abandoned woman in a long-sleeved top and baggy skirt. We hear her before we see her: a voice from the floor below (a partially hidden staircase winds up onto the stage) declaring that death is her wish. But, as more indignities are heaped upon her, her desires shift from suicide to justice. It’s not with hysteria but with eerie calm that she decides upon the most painful retribution (killing Jason’s children) and asks Aegeus, not once but twice, “Do you not think that such men ought to be punished?”

It’s a riveting performance by Okonedo, who seems to transform completely – not just through a costume change (into a funereal black gown), or because Medea embraces her supernatural gifts (which were once valued; now, she’s at the centre of a literal witch hunt). We are lured into her way of thinking, only to be shocked back into reality by the sight of her two innocent children – introduced here slurping ice cream cones – and by the agony of Bailey’s nurse in having to recount the grisly fate of Jason’s bride.

Given the intensity and intimacy of the performances, and how the central drama is already enhanced by the reactions of the onlookers (plus striking lighting by Neil Austin), it feels like overkill to add alarms and helicopters to Gareth Fry’s busy soundscape, and in particular the clichéd crutch of an actual storm. The most harrowing moments here are the quieter ones, as we come to understand the inexorable logic of the play, cold and hard as the stone floor in Vicki Mortimer’s raw design – and our role as helpless witnesses, doomed to watch it reach its bloody climax.

Medea is at Soho Place through 22 April. Book Medea tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Ben Daniels and Sophie Okonedia in Medea at Soho Place (Photo by Johan Persson)

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