(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/17; via Pam Green; Photo: Never an outright monster … Sophie Okonedo, right, and Ben Daniels in Medea. Photograph: Johan Persson.)
Medea is as much victim as villain in Dominic Cooke’s psychologically subtle and subversive production, and Ben Daniels is superb playing all the puffed up men in her life
Medea sits high up in the ancient Greek pantheon of rebel women: a murderous mother and conniving sorceress who exacts revenge by killing her own children. What is remarkable in this production is that Sophie Okonedo’s spurned wife is never an outright monster but rather a deeply wounded, highly strategic, stateswomanly figure; a formidable opponent to unfaithful husband, Jason, and almost upstanding in her anger. It is a magnificent performance.
So is Ben Daniels’ as Creon, Jason and Aegeus, to whom she runs for safety in Athens. Daniels is superb in each role but the final scene, depicting Jason’s grief, is immense and abject.
What seems like a formal, declamatory interpretation of the play at first becomes psychological and subtly subversive in Dominic Cooke’s hands. Robinson Jeffers’s celebrated adaptation has an epic quality but is more Shakespearean than Euripidean in its pace and poetry; the show runs over 90 minutes but is meditative rather than fevered.
There is no high concept behind the production, only ancient drama in modern dress. Vicki Mortimer’s set is an illuminated circle outside which are the women of Corinth (Jo McInnes, Amy Trigg and Penny Layden). They are witnesses to the violence, seated among us and unable to stop the rumble of fate. But they are also voyeurs, looking on at a woman’s dramatised pain, to which Medea refers at the start. “You’ve come, let me suppose… to peer at my sorrow,” she tells them and us.
Gareth Fry’s sound cranks up the tension with drums, rattles, alarms and helicopters overhead, while the violence is all the more horrific for remaining unseen. A staircase leading down to a basement allows us to hear the children’s screams as they are murdered without seeing them, just as the death of Jason’s new wife – poisoned by Medea – is delivered in a report of eye-watering brutality. The children (Oscar Coleman and Eiden-River Coleman on the final night in preview) are angelic, running on to stage doe-like and silent.