Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels are superb in this stirring tale of injustice and revenge, Alice Payne reviews…
At its debut in 431 BC, Medea only came third in the annual tragedies competition. With its unsettling story of betrayal, vengeance and filicide, perhaps the ancient Greeks weren’t sure what to make of it. Contrary to their feminine ideals, the titular Medea is calculating, fiery and tenacious. She refuses to be used like a pawn by the men in her life and writes a ruthless new ending to their collective tale, with devastating effect.
This latest production by Dominic Cooke makes powerful work of the paradox at its heart; that Medea is both the villain and the hero of her story. Sophie Okonedo is mesmerising as Medea – a character one ought to hate but can’t. Her searing performance captures a woman veering between monstrous and deeply human, who even in her worst moments is driven by a pain so visceral it radiates like heat across the stage.
For me, this was slightly unexpected, as I’d mixed up my Greek tragedies and thought I was going to see the far gentler Eumenides. I was not prepared for the intensity of what follows.
In case you don’t know the story, Medea has sacrificed all for love and it hasn’t worked out well. She’s betrayed her family to help Jason steal their golden fleece, fled her homeland and forfeited her security. Women had few rights in ancient Greece, but as a foreigner Medea has none. Having borne Jason two children, she is distraught at his political decision to marry King Creon’s daughter in an alliance that leaves her somewhere between an inconvenience and a threat – and means she and her children are to be exiled.
We meet her in the midst of this devastation. “You’ve come… to peer at my sorrow,” she says to the Chorus, seated amongst us in the audience. We have. But Okonedo’s raging, plotting, undefeatable Medea won’t suffer our pity, “the twin of contempt”. She’ll sort things out herself. Because if there’s one thing Medea is sure of, it’s that “no-one has ever injured me without suffering more than I have…” which Jason and Creon have ominously forgotten.
What unfolds over the play’s 90 minutes is a gruelling watch. Yet it’s also strangely inspiring (Medea was a Suffragette icon). Here’s a woman backed into a corner, who retains utter faith in her ability to reverse her fortune and destroy her opponents. Which she does. Greek women were largely confined to the domestic sphere and Medea turns the sparse, circular stage of her home, designed by Vicki Mortimer, into her arena – its minimalist aesthetic amplifying her presence.
As Jason, Creon and the hapless Aegeus step foot into her domain, she extracts what she needs through cunning, fury or supplication. Ben Daniels plays all the male roles with impressive dexterity, muscles rippling as he prowls the perimeter of the stage before each entrance, as though closing in on his prey. At the centre, like a gladiator in the ring, Medea repeatedly does battle – raging, scheming or entreating his characters to get what she wants; which is not to be the victim. But watching the hideous final scene, drenched in blood that is also her own, the cost seems too high.
It is not all darkness though; Daniels’ camp rendition of Aegeus brings unexpected humour, whilst Okonedo’s delivery of barbed one-liners leaves the audience surprised by their own laughter, momentarily breaking the tension. And then there are the heart-wrenching moments of maternal tenderness as Medea recoils in horror at her own plans.
We know what’s coming, though. But as Medea crushes Jason’s hubris, the play’s terrible moment of catharsis – which Cooke intensifies with blood, rain and off-stage murder – leaves the audience aghast.
Perhaps that’s what its original viewers didn’t like. But Cooke’s production is theatre at its most powerful. And unlike its debut reception, I think it might be the best play you’ll see this year. But steel yourself – this is no Eumenides.
Medea runs at Soho Place until 22nd April 2023. For tickets and more information, visit www.sohoplace.org.
Photos by Johan Persson. Header photo by Manuel Harlan.