Medea: Revenge and The Avengers at the NT

Helen McRory’s Medea was unmatchable, I’d guess. She is superb as the woman close to a complete breakdown but never more magnificent and even sometimes in an eerie sort of control, and not without wit and guile. Not at all without those latter, though at her wits’ end. But let’s get down to business – the bits she’s not accountable for.  

Comic interlude

Funny thing. My last encounter with Greek tragedy was in a tent in Minchinhampton, where last month I saw Gifford’s Circus give their show, The Thunders. It was based on various Greek myths (Medusa, etc) and one rather wishes they had factored in Medea: that would be something to give those Entitlement Central mums from Fulham to bray at their beautiful, mildly unruly children about. (It was a fabulous event and had one’s head spinning with possible future scenarios….) And then there was a brief, tangental, encounter with Julianne Moore in The Forgotten (2004), on TV the other night, reminding us that McRory would meet her match there, in the unhinged, fated and fate-denying motherhood stakes.

Gifford’s reminded on that it is OK to laugh at the oddities of Greek chorus line dancing. Thus licenced, I tracked down a bat squeak of a comic reference in McRory’s Medea: I got slight notes of Emma Steed, in her trouser suit (The Avengers, indeed). Only Google neatened things up when it reminded me that Diana Rigg gave an NT Medea herself.

Scuppered by sociology

I saw this NT show – the last in the theatre run – as a live simulcast in a shed cinema. So we were given a little warm-up explanatory series of acts by various people (I think all women, if I recall) who were to do with the production. I fear I forget their exact roles, but it doesn’t matter. We were in luvviedom, and in NT luvviedom to boot. So we would expect a certain feminism and a certain leftiness.

The feminism seems about right for this show. So far as I understand it, Euripedes intended Medea to be an exploration of the abuses to which women are subject and their strengths (many) and weaknesses (not many) as he saw them, or wanted to discuss them at that moment.

Indeed, isn’t it a trope of modern feminism that one need or right is for women to be as dark as men, exactly as Euripedes’ Medea (anyway, certainly, Ben Power’s Medea) demands? (Quite soon this logic will require feminists to abandon four-fifths of the feminist exceptionalism.) This is the sort of argument that seems to lurk (uncomfortably for many, feminists included) in the new book, Women in Dark Times by Jacqueline Rose. This seems to say that women have had the rough edge of “dark times”; but it seems also – and this is the bit I might enjoy more – to go on to say that it is right to see women as “the dark continent”, as Freud apparently called them: dark but knowing. That seems to be the burden of the interesting Daily Telegraph review by Frances Wilson. (The book, by the way, celebrates Charlotte Saloman, the extraordinary graphic artist, who was indeed, I think, dark even before she was swept up in the Holocaust.)

But the leftiness of the intended messages of this particular production was another matter. To be sure, it doesn’t much matter what the NT wanted us to get out of the evening: we got Euripedes as done by the adaptor and McRory, and both felt like pretty up-and-down, straight accounts.

Still. The NT’s introducers seemed to want us to believe that the play was relevant (watch it, here we go!) because it looks like an account of the sort of filicide (that is, child-killing as opposed to more narrowly-defined baby- or toddler-killing) occasionally seen amongst sane women who are under intolerable strain. But what little I know of the evidence suggests that very few school-age kids get killed by their mothers, and I would hazard a guess that very very few of them are killed as an act of revenge.

But the NT’s mistake here is the classic one of imagining that they understand modern sociology or – even more crucial granted the trade they’re in – that writers historically speaking had much idea of sociology as an explanation or motivation for anything.

David Hare might think sociologically, but that doesn’t mean that Euripedes did. So Euripiedes may never have heard of a real Greek mother killing her 10 year old, or have thought that the actions of such a woman could be explained sociologically. He almost certainly did not think to unravel the sociology of such an event when he sat to write Medea.

I imagine that Euripedes was interested in some things which are familiar to us, and resonate similarly with us. One imagines morality is one such sphere; and even – perhaps especially – psychology. Of course, he factored in cosmology: his notion of heavenly, or near-heavenly – interference, such as we understand it, relates to our own ideas of fate and narrative and luck and – yes, psychology again. Because the Greek way of seeing things is so strong, it infects us now, and hasn’t really been superseded.

But the Greek way of seeing things surely meant that Euripedes took the Medea story (as revved up by his own pen or stylus or whatever), not as something normal though uncommon, to be explained. Rather he took it is an absolutely fantastic thing which we asserted he could make us believe and in which we could see shards of our own behaviour, even though it might shame us. So out there, up there, amongst gods and near-gods, and on stage we see beings (such as Medea) who are fantastically blessed and blighted, who work on a worse, bigger, better, clearer, darker plane, than we do. But we can stretch ourselves to enjoy their account of themselves, and can even be so presumptuous as anatomise them, we who cannot hope to be so grand.


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Publication date

05 September 2014


On theatre