Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1
Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory
There is probably no such thing as a forgettable Medea. This is the mother in Euripides's play who exacts revenge on her betraying husband by murdering their children. Diana Riggs's had a hurricane strength; Fiona Shaw's, set in what looked like a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, caused audience members to faint. I think I shall remember Helen McCrory's for the way she sustains almost to the very end of Carrie Cracknell's modern production of 90 uninterrupted minutes, the almost unbearable hope that Medea will divert herself from her murderous course.
Rather like Shaw's, this Medea is set in a modern home. Tom Scutt's two-tier design is topped by a glass gallery in which preparations for the wedding of Jason, Medea's husband, to King Creon's daughter continue despite Medea's terrifying protests. Below that level is the shadowy, sparsely furnished house in which Jason's and Medea's boys watch TV and play Xbox, while beyond is the forest wilderness into which Medea will ultimately carry her dead children.
I suppose you need that hope, no matter how forlorn. Without it, the lead-up to what must be the most horrifying crime in drama would be almost unwatchable. There is always the sense that, somehow, this time Medea might be persuaded either by her own conscience, or by the chorus - who eerily double as Jason's bridesmaids - to show mercy. But with every hesitation, McCrory's Medea musters renewed strength, so much so that her body trembles with the force of it. And in a play whose events unfold over the course of one wedding day, it's a performance that charts the conflicting psychologies of a mind whose unravelling causes a doting mother to murder her children.
Ben Power's new translation makes a clear case in defence of Medea. It suggests her final act is not only one of ultimate revenge but is in some way carried out to protect her sons from the hands of less loving killers. There are other unforgettable elements to this production. Danny Sapani plays Jason with awe-inspiring authority and Lucy Carter's choreography has the chorus jerking, twitching and contorting, brilliantly depicting an almost unspeakable state of mind.