Medea

I finally completed my Almeida Greeks trilogy when I saw Rupert Goold’s new production of Medea. Like the two previous plays in the season, it’s a fairly radical new version of Euripides’ classic; a loose adaptation rather than a close interpretation. Novelist Rachel Cusk has set her version in the modern day: Medea, played with firm intensity by Kate Fleetwood, is a writer devastated by her husband’s betrayal. As he plans a future with his new, younger lover, she is left to look after their two young children alone, forced to move out of their home and facing criticism on all sides.

At its heart, the play is about one woman’s suffering, and Cusk does a good job of allowing us to empathise with Medea. The play opens with her in the middle of the stage, standing silently, hair over her face, as her parents, sitting on either side of her, comment harshly on events and seem to suggest that Medea is in some way responsible. In some respects it has a distinctly feminist slant, as Cusk suggests that men leave their women to bring up the children and run off when they get bored, but the women don’t get off lightly either, with the chorus of yummy mummies repulsive in their smug judgement of Medea.

I was particularly impressed with the child actors, who were painfully believable in their behaviour: the youngest railing against the injustice of having to leave his big house, declaring “I hate you!” to his mother; the eldest, more aware of his mother’s feelings, trying to quench his little brother’s moaning and declaring support for his mum.

The play did seem to lose its way during the last twenty minutes or so, with a confusing explanation from a dual-natured Messenger as to what happened next. However, the final revelation was, to me, entirely unexpected yet totally in keeping with what had gone before.

While far from perfect, this play got me thinking about the roles of men and women – society’s pressures on women in particular – as well as the profound effect emotional upheaval has on children. I’m glad I completed my Greek trilogy.

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Bakkhai

The second production in the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season sees Euripides’ Bakkhai performed in a new version by Anne Carson, directed by James Macdonald. With a cast of three plus a chorus, it aims to replicate the original structure of the drama, against a plain but effective, unobtrusively modern backdrop.

Ben Wishaw stars as Dionysus, the demigod who objects when he feels the citizens of Thebes are not worshipping him enough. With malignant glee he plans the downfall of the uptight Pentheus, the besuited leader of the city. Tricking him with a plan to infiltrate Dionysus’ female worshippers, who have fled to the hills beyond Thebes, he lures him to his death.

Wishaw is superb, commanding the stage as Dionysus and appealing to the audience with charisma and a winning manner. Carvel is also excellent as Pentheus, an outwardly affable politician whose authoritarian stance leads to a distrust of the reckless abandon Dionysus stands for.

Kevin Harvey is an actor I hadn’t come across before, but I was impressed with his performances in a number of very different roles. In fact, all of the actors play varied roles in this piece, and I got the impression that Wishaw, rather than simply playing a number of different roles, was playing Dionysus playing different roles. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it gave his character an omniscient quality, and added another dimension to the play. For instance, there was a moment when Cadmus was trying to persuade Pentheus that he should be pragmatic about Dionysus and say that he believes in him even if he doesn’t, for the sake of keeping the peace. And Wishaw’s Tiresias, standing to one side, seemed to be listening rather thoughtfully, as if he was actually Dionysus all along and noticing that Cadmus’ belief in him wasn’t quite as sincere as he had thought.

The chorus are a memorable part of this production: they are obviously talented and well rehearsed, and are an extremely strong ensemble. However, I thought that they had too much stage time, which slowed down the action somewhat, and their presence did get a little repetitive after a while. In general, though, I thought that this was an incredibly strong play and a worthy successor to the Oresteia.

Oresteia

 

The Almeida’s Greek season kicks off with Oresteia, a single-play version of Aeschylus’ trilogy that concerns the curse on the House of Atreus and the character of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who through the course of the work is driven to seek revenge. Director Robert Icke and dramaturg Duska Radosavljevic have worked together to create a piece with modern clothing, technology and a contemporary, starkly lit stage, yet with a timeless atmosphere.

The piece is presented as a therapy session between Orestes (Luke Thompson) and his therapist (Lorna Brown), as he tries to come to terms with the deaths of family members, including his own killing of Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) after she murdered his father Agamemnon (Angus Wright) for ordering the killing of Iphigenia (Amelia Baldock). In between snapshots of their conversation, we see the events that led up to it, as Agamemnon is forced by the gods to sacrifice his daughter to ensure the end of the war with Troy. As time goes on there is more and more bloodshed, with Orestes returning to avenge his father’s death, and there is an impressive twist towards the end of the play that made me question everything that had gone before.

There are some fine performances, notably from Williams and Thompson, with ex-Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay a strong Electra. The whole production is compelling, with memorable dramatic tension: the piece as a whole is over three hours, but I found that the time flew by. The production asks powerful questions about justice and revenge, family and loyalty – not bad for a play originally written over 2000 years ago.

The production will transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End, which is incredibly well deserved. Don’t be put off by the running time – this is a hugely contemporary piece of Greek theatre.