Review - Medea is 'essential viewing' at the Barbican

Our critics rating: 
Thursday, 07 March, 2019
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One of my favourite lines in any musical is the declaration in Sunday in the Park with George about Georges Seurat's starting point when he painted a picture:  "White. A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities." And for this startling, thrilling new production of Medea, that could be transposed as: "White. A blank stage. So many possibilities."

I'm not sure I've ever seen a whiter stage. A long curved white screen dominates the forestage. When one of the panel lifts, it reveals an expanse of even more white space. Colour only seeps into this space in the clothes the actors wear. Black ash will eventually slowly start falling - and pool as a disruption to this clean landscape. But white-hot anger and resentments will play out painfully between medical research scientist Anna and her former husband Lucas, whom she tried to poison to death after he had an affair with a work colleague's much younger daughter.

With its title Medea borrowed from Euripides - and the couple's two young boys entrusted to the custody of the husband after the mother has been hospitalised - it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that things will end badly. But the extraordinary thing about Simon Stone's version for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam is how constantly surprising it is in its brutal, blistering intensity.

Stone, a young Australian-born director who previously also directed another astonishing portrait of a couple in crisis in Yerma (based on Lorca's play of the same name) at the Young Vic in 2016, brings a forensic, shape-shifting theatricality to it. And as in Yerma, which featured Billie Piper in a performance that deservedly won her an Olivier Award, there's an unmissable performance from Marieke Heebink as the unhinged matriarch, here called Anna; this is one of the single most astonishing Medea's I've ever seen. Unsentimental, ferocious and alarming, she's on edge and on fire.

It is presented by Internatonaal Theater Amsterdam, formerly known as Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which is the resident home of director Ivo van Hove. And it bears some of that influential auteur director's signature devices, like extensive use of tracking video that follows characters and reveals them in frequent close-up. But Stone isn't mimicking the techniques of the company's master slavishly; in fact, the video here becomes an organic and intrinsic part of the narrative, as the couple's sons are making a film about their family.

At just 80 minutes long, it's a production that's short, sharp and shocking - and essential viewing.

Medea is at the Barbican until 9th March. 

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