As part of the Almeida Greeks season, intrepid author Rachel Cusk has re-imagined the most un-imaginable of mythical tragedies, the tale of Medea, who slaughters her own children in vengeance against her husband Jason for running off with a younger woman. And she bumps off the usurper too…
In this contemporary Euripidean interpretation, Rupert Goold directs his wife Kate Fleetwood in a viciously candid performance of a woman scorned, grieving for the life and family that her husband’s infidelity has all but slain. Such sticky territory is prime fodder for a writer who does not seem to fear ticking anyone off (note the general outrage at Cusk’s 2012 memoir, Aftermath, in which she provided an unselfconsciously honest account of the breakdown of her marriage). And with a woman’s role in society such a case in point, this play is more appropriately timed than ever. Its recklessly rational portrayal of a woman’s emotions throughout the dissolution of all that she holds dear, rather than chronicling a descent into insanity, bravely expounds the myriad emotions that the female mind battles against and the pressure exerted on these by the sociological expectations that seem barely to have changed in the two millennia since this saga was originally told.
Going into this play when you already know the ending gives a palpable sense of anxiety to it from the off. When is it going to happen? How is it going to happen? Will we have to see it? Will there be screaming? Oh god, I hope it’s not too graphic – they’ve got children in this performance, haven’t they? This edginess is only accentuated by the cold design of the familial home: a trendily greige and concrete loft-style flat with bare brickwork and stainless steel worktops. Medea’s clothes are harshly black and grey, and the items of sentimentality on-set extend about as far as her laptop and lamp – key possessions for a writer, as Cusk has made her. And Fleetwood’s spiky tone, her bristly presence, her piercingly intense gaze on not only her ex-husband but the audience, at times, make her genuinely frightening.
This apprehension doesn’t actually go very far, which is the biggest quirk of Cusk’s account because spoiler: there is no bloodbath. In toning down the levels of violence to suit more modern behaviours, Cusk makes the sorceress Medea’s weaponry her words as a writer (indeed, in one line she says that she might cut her children’s faces with her words – creepy, yes, but better than actually killing them, one would imagine). Ultimately, she destroys Jason’s life by ridiculing that which he cherishes rather than physically slaughtering it and, perversely, this creates a bit of an anticlimax, especially when both Medea and Jason have thrown on what look like ancient-Greek-style battle robes towards the end; you think they’re getting ready for a showdown. However, this approach is far more realistic as, generally speaking, folk don’t go around poisoning chalices, wielding daggers in bedchambers or such like in order to gazump their rivals any more, so fair play.
This more modern tack also helps to clean the window into Medea’s soul, in order to understand how and why she does what we all know she is going to do: if the crime is more temperate, to whatever extent, there can perhaps be greater empathy. Which is clearly something that Cusk is fighting against: the unthinking labelling of women. This is most obviously exposed by the chorus of yummy mummies who flit around the school gates, exchanging moral platitudes and bitchy assessments of one another. “She’s brought it on herself,” they say of Medea. They prance around in harmony, togas draped over their jeans and babies perpetually strapped to their chests and, like most of the supporting roles, are unnervingly identifiable.
But so, too, is Medea. Between them, Cusk and Fleetwood manage to elucidate this woman’s state of mind as a wife whose efforts to support her husband have been degraded, whose best friend and lover has suddenly disappeared leaving her forlorn, whose children will now suffer the effects of a broken home and who will, every moment, remind her of the life that she is no longer allowed to treasure. And, most frustratingly of all, whilst Jason is able to bask in his new life, she is the one branded by society as all sorts of horrible things: bitter, useless, cold when she doesn’t say enough, histrionic when she reacts too much, a reject, damaged goods – the list goes on and is riddled with contradictions. Cusk weaves this skewed view throughout the play, and Fleetwood executes it with outraged might, making the audience fear and pity her in perfect measure. And that’s despite lines that buck the norm, like: “Motherhood: it’s such a dead end.”
Cusk’s script is crammed full of quotable lines and themes that will have many a dissertation written about them (one being marriage as an inherently void contract on the basis of the state of temporary insanity under which most parties undertake it, namely love). But this wouldn’t be anything if not backed up by real, raw emotion, which this Medea has in bucket loads. It is brilliantly discomforting.
Medea at the Almeida, Almeida St, London N1 1TA, until the 14th November 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.