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Medea

by on 16 February 2023

The Real Mother Monster

Medea

by Robinson Jeffers, adapted from the play by Euripides

Fictionhouse at the @SohoPlace Theatre until 22nd April

Review by Louis Mazzini  

Lurking in the darker corners of Greek mythology are Medea and her husband Jason, he who – with Medea’s help – found the Golden Fleece.  Their horrifying story may be nearly two and a half thousand years old, but what Medea does when Jason finally, inevitably, betrays her is all too familiar today.  In his lyrically visceral Medea, freely adapted from Euripides, the American poet Robinson Jeffers does not attempt to garner sympathy for Medea.  For him, she is precisely what she was when Euripides first told the story – a witch who is capable of acts of unimaginable evil and whose only defence is the possibility, no more, that the gods have directed her actions. 

In the early 1940s, Jeffers wrote Medea for the Australian actress Judith Anderson, who had been unforgettable as the cold and spiteful Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.  And Anderson played Medea when the play opened on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by John Gielgud, the British actor who played Jason at the beginning of the run.  For Anderson – and, one senses, also for Jeffers – Medea was “a woman used, abandoned, humiliated, scorned, but she wasn’t bad.  She loved, and gave everything she had, and was betrayed.  She had great passion and she lived greatly.” All this and much, much more is apparent in Sophie Okonedo’s blistering performance in Dominic Cooke’s revival of Jeffers’ Medea at the aching zeitgeisty @SohoPlace, the “first new-build West End theatre in fifty years” and, aside of some concerns about accessibility, London’s stunning new in-the-round venue.   

Medea is set in the ancient Greek city of Corinth and Vicki Mortimer’s set for Medea is a model of stark simplicity, a near elliptical bare stone courtyard, bounded on one side by what appears to be a low curved wall but proves to conceal steps to Medea’s quarters underground.   Dismissing some rather pointless business with a table and chairs at the very opening, the symbolism is clear.  Medea has given everything for Jason, and has nothing in return.  Except what he has given her and what she will never return.  The courtyard is patrolled almost continuously by Ben Daniels who plays all of the male characters (including one that stays more or less on the right side of cliché).  Daniels is superb and his Jason is almost the equal of Medea.  As the wretched, wrathful fury, Okonedo gives a towering performance, one that will surely be recognised when the awards season comes around.  As the children’s nanny, Marion Bailey is heart-rending, caught between Medea and her enemies, and entangled in loyalty and fear, and guidance – not always reliable – from the women of Corinth, played by Penny Layden, Amy Trigg and Jo McInnes. 

An unforgettable production of a devastating play, such is Medea.

Louis Mazzini, February 2023

Photography courtesy of Fictionhouse

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