A commanding performance from Rachael Stirling lifts Mike Bartlett's mundane take on Euripides' tragedy
The question of how to make barbarian heroine Medea’s gruesome act of vengeance against her husband Jason believable to a modern audience is one that never ceases to fascinate and inspire theatre-makers. Playwright Mike Bartlett (Cock, Love, Love, Love) has made a bold move in updating Euripides’ tragedy to suburban England, but despite a commanding performance from Rachael Stirling in the lead, the adaptation cannot muster sufficient gravitas to explain or justify its horrifying final scenes.
Bartlett’s Medea is a proud, posh outsider in the small town where her ex-husband Jason grew up, whose unremarkable inhabitants she describes as ‘fat, because they’re greedy’. Devastated by Jason’s having run off with their landlord’s daughter, Kate, Medea has sunk into a black depression interspersed with bursts of anger directed at herself and son Tom, mute since his father’s departure, as well as a frightening verbal assault on Kate in the town centre.
Stirling’s complex performance is a thing to be relished: despite the sketchy nature of her character’s back story she brings a potent mix of intelligence, fury, arrogance and desperation to the role. She is such a powerful figure that you’re left continually questioning her attachment to the smarmy, craven Jason (Adam Levy), the boxy, semi-detached house she is about to be evicted from (claustrophobically evoked in Ruari Murchison’s set), and the conventional family life she has found herself in for a decade.
Indeed, it’s Bartlett’s determination to emphasise the banality of his setting and the ordinariness of these characters that rather scuttles the play’s impact. The soapish dialogue of the play’s first three-quarters means that a jarring tonal shift is required for the grand-guignol goings-on at Jason and Kate’s wedding and their aftermath. A nod to classical mores is given with Paul Brendan’s watchful workman character, but as a chorus he is given strikingly little to do. The production is worth seeing for Stirling’s performance and some enjoyable moments of dark humour, but if you didn’t already know the trajectory of the story you might be forgiven for being baffled by the turn of events.
Medea runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 13 Oct.