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Medea, the mother of all classical roles

Medea, the mother of all classical roles

Medea, the mother of all classical roles cover photo on Stagedoor
After 2500 years of bad press, Lyn Gardner sheds some light on one of Greek theatre's most infamous women.

When Sophie Okonedo plays Medea at @sohoplace in London early next year she will be taking on the mother of great classical roles. She will join a pantheon of great actors from Diana Rigg to Fiona Shaw and the late, great Helen McCrory who have played one of drama’s most infamous women. Euripides’ play begins after Medea’s husband, Jason, has deserted her and their children for a younger model, the daughter of Creon, the king, who wants to banish Medea and her children from Corinth.

This latest revival will be directed by Dominic Cooke, and also stars Ben Daniels as the men in Medea’s life (he will not just play Jason, but also Creon and Ageus). It uses a version written by the mid-century American poet Robinson Jeffers, a man who was a distinct pessimist about human nature and had the horrors of WW2, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, to prove it.

Written over 2,500 years ago by Euripides, Medea is a play which has endured – even though it only won its author third place at the City Dionysia competition in 431 BC. Fellow playwright Aristophanes was not an admirer, setting the tone for how Medea would be seen for millennia by ticking Euripides off for making Medea a child-killer who gets away with her crime. In Euripides’ play, Medea escapes on a winged chariot, ancient Greece’s equivalent of a witch on a broomstick. For centuries Medea was perceived as a bad girl, a vengeful harpy who escapes justice for murder, including killing her own children. What mother would do that? To pity Medea would be to have sympathy for the (she) devil.

Promotional image of Kate Fleetwood from Rupert Goold's 2015 production at the Almeida.

But just as in recent years theatre has often revised its readings of other bad girls—including Lady Macbeth, and in particular Hedda Gabler—so the 21st century has made us see Medea in a new light. In Deborah Warner’s 2001 production, the revival which started to turn the tide of how Medea was perceived, Fiona Shaw’s Medea was a woman in a cardigan in thrall to the notion of romantic love who had given up everything to be with Jason and now found herself fleeced. She was foolish and guilty—just like her husband—but also as much sinned against as sinning.

Rachel Cusk’s 2015 version directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida, and starring Kate Fleetwood as an Islington writer going through a really nasty, messy divorce, continued the theme of two adults in one marriage who both behave badly. But it dispensed with the traditional ending in which Medea slays her own children. Pre-Euripides, versions of the story also saw the children slaughtered, but not by the hand of their mother but at the hands of a Corinthian crowd, outraged that the outsider Medea has murdered their princess and king.

Other recent productions, including Carrie Cracknell’s starring Helen McCrory at the National in 2014, Simon Stone’s 2019 modern version at the Barbican (inspired by true story of an American doctor who killed her own children in 2005), and last summer’s revival at the Edinburgh International Festival starring Adura Onashile, and employing Liz Lochhead’s trenchant female led version, emphasise the way that Medea is a woman who has given up everything to be with the man she loves. In helping Jason win the Golden Fleece she betrayed her father and killed her brother. There is no going back for her.

From Simon Stone's 2019 production at the Barbican. Photo by Sanne Peper.

In Corinth she is perceived as an outsider and a potentially dangerous witchy one at that. Everyone knows she is the niece of Circe, the sorceress. So, when Jason sets his eye on a new wife, Medea’s situation is uncertain to say the least. When Creon banishes her and her children she know that their future is precarious. Who and where will accept her? Mike Bartlett made that dynamic apparent in his 2012 stage version starring Rachael Stirling (daughter of that other great Medea, Diana Rigg) and went on to riff on it further in the TV series Dr Foster with Suranne Jones as a suburban Medea married to Bertie Carvel’s latter-day Jason.

More recent versions have not tried to assuage guilt for Medea’s actions, in particular the slaughter of her children, but they have often made us understand the dynamics of both a society and a marriage within that society which might make a woman behave in the way that Medea does. Killing your own children may be perceived as the greatest crime that a woman can commit, but it is more common than perhaps we like to admit. In Liz Lochhead’s version she is a woman caught in a web of patriarchy who is as much judged by women as she is by the men who demean and devalue her. She makes a terrible choice, but perhaps she mistakenly thinks she is saving her children from something worse. When people are backed into a corner they don’t behave rationally.

Given how much Medea has been reassessed, it’s interesting that Cooke has chosen to revert to a much earlier version of the play than the pithy, modern retellings that we have become used to in recent years. Jeffers, once spoken of in the same breath as TS Eliot, wrote his version for the Australian actress Dame Judith Anderson and it premiered in 1947 when the horrors of war were still fresh in people’s minds. Modern Medeas are often smart, whiplash funny and deeply wounded; Jeffers’ poetic Medea is a whirlwind of a woman who brings chaos and death in her wake. What’s certain is that Sophie Okonedo will find the fury, ferocity but also the humanity of the woman which is only now emerging after 2500 years of bad press.

Cover image of Sophie Okonedo from Medea at @sohoplace from the 11th February through the 22nd April 2023. Tickets can be found here.

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Lyn Gardner

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