Life & Culture

Medea theatre review: A mother takes her bloody revenge

Sophie Okonedo is utterly compelling in Dominic Cooke’s steely, modern-dress production


sohotheatre | ★★★★★

To my knowledge no one has ever described Medea as a Jewish mother. Murdering your children to avenge a betraying husband — in this case Jason of golden fleece fame — is generally seen as the opposite of matriarchal molly-coddling.

Yet perhaps because Dominic Cooke’s steely, modern-dress production, which uses Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation (first seen in 1947) of Euripides’s play (first seen in 431 BCE), casts Sophie Okonedo in the title role, there is something tangibly Jewish about this terrifying heroine of Greek drama.

It is there in the endless stamina with which Okonedo’s Medea prosecutes the art of argument; in the gesticulation and intonation with which she puts her case, and there again in the foreignness of a Medea held in contempt by the public for not being Greek and played by an actor of Jewish and Nigerian parentage who was raised on a Wembley estate and despite all the awards has not forgotten how it feels to be utterly other.

“Have you finished now?” she asks Ben Daniels’s Jason after he claims credit for being a thoughtful father of their two young sons.

This despite having left their mother for a princess after all Medea has done for him, including saving his life by killing her brother and generally burnishing Jason’s reputation so effectively she has unwittingly enabled his betrayal.

Still, he too has been unwitting. The declaration of love for their sons has confirmed them as his greatest vulnerability and sealed the boys’ fate. You can’t annihilate the past, muses Medea. But the present that follows it can be “nipped off”.

True, there is still what might be described as the Shylock problem — how to rationalise or humanise an act of barbarity. But Okonedo lays that ghost with flashes of fathom-deep love for the children. The cost of revenge to Medea is never in doubt.

There are oases of humour during this taut, harrowing evening of 90 minutes. We cling to them like life rafts.

Some appear with Medea’s flashes of sarcasm, such as when she greets Jason as “conqueror” knowing full well that her vengeance has begun.

Another raft emerges when Daniels — who plays all the men — appears as Aegeus and silverback masculinity is swapped for camp as the ruler of Athens ponders why he has never had a child.

Daniels is also marvellous. As Jason, Creon and Aegeus and (less convincingly) the old tutor to Medea’s children, he stalks the perimeter of the circular stage in slow motion in a display of impressive physical control and balance before breaking into the acting space on cue.

The chorus — Corinthian women — are scattered among the audience like paying punters.
Sensing what is to happen they want to leave, but like us are compelled by Medea to stay and witness how a “woman endures betrayal”.

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