Last Updated on 18th February 2023
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Dominic Cooke’s new production of Euripides’ Medea starring Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels now playing at @SohoPlace, London.
17 February 2023
This much anticipated new production of Euripides’ Medea is in many ways quite traditional in its approach, and none the worse at all for that. Director Dominic Cooke has trusted to the strengths of the play and his cast and deserves credit for doing so. The adaptation used is the famous and austerely rugged version by the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers. Despite the fact that it was devised for a 1940s production starring Judith Anderson, it still strikes the ear as a starkly raw modernist text, finding a range of elevated tragic grandeur and specific grisly horror, as required.
The evening runs straight through in a compelling ninety-minute span. The action is presented in the round taking full advantage of the excellent sightlines at the new venue @sohoplace. We are presented with a paved courtyard, from which a spiral staircase that leads down below to rooms off-stage. Ramps provide exits at all four corners, and the women of Corinth, the chorus in the play, are strategically placed in the audience seating.
All the roles are well taken, and while the main burden rests with Ben Daniels and Sophie Okonedo, it is important to note that there is real quality in the supporting roles too. In a sense there are no minor roles in Greek tragedy, as all these roles act at one point or another in a ‘messenger’ capacity with important speeches and news to impart reporting key turning points in the drama. And the chorus also acts as an essential conscience of the audience, reflecting and guiding our reactions to the main moral issues and dilemmas. So, praise is due to Marion Bailey as the Nurse, who manages to combine loyalty to her mistress while expressing fear for what she may ultimately do. Towards the end she also provides a truly chilling, beautifully paced description of the first act of vengeance that Medea perpetrates. The three women of Corinth who act as the chorus deliver a wide emotional register with which to react to the events of the play and offer some important countervailing arguments against Medea’s determination on ultimate revenge. Finally, the roles of Medea’s children are taken by two boys who act very plausibly with no self-consciousness despite their young age.
Ben Daniels plays four roles, all carefully distinguished from one another. In between he circles the stage in slow motion, gradually shedding or donning a jacket and by that means morphing from one role to another. Pre-eminently he is Jason, and his journey through that role from swaggering hero through to broken and grieving father is finely calibrated and expertly done. Jason’s great wrong is to abandon Medea with an eye to the main chance. He has married instead the only daughter of king Creon of Corinth in the hope of ultimately succeeding him as dynastic sovereign; and this despite the fact that he owes the success of his mission to acquire the Gold Fleece almost entirely to Medea’s magic and to her willingness to abandon her country and come to alien Greece with him. So to begin with he is all blithe swagger and insouciance, which gradually crumbles in the face of Medea’s systematic revenge. In the final scene, while artificial rain falls. and the evidence of murder off-stage accumulates, he crumples and collapses most impressively.
But this is only part of his achievement. He also projects cold dynastic realpolitik with equal skill as King Creon, kindly empathy as the boys’ tutor, and camp sophistication as the visiting Athenian Ageus. This latter characterisation is a delightful and welcome episode of humour in an otherwise grim and remorseless evening.
This play stands or fall on its Medea, and Sophie Okonedo rises fully to the challenge of the role. What impresses is her slow burn dignity and solemnly calculated approach to the task of revenge. The rage does not emerge too soon, so that what catches your attention is her careful plotting and skillful manipulation of the other characters in the direction of her predetermined and implacable purposes. She is suitably meek and compliant with Creon so as to gain time to execute her plans. She plays with Jason with all the plausible skills of someone who though rejected still knows exactly how to charm a former lover. Perhaps the most painful moment of the evening is when she persuades Jason get down on the floor and play with his children. The conventional family scene in all its ordinariness is heart-stopping when you know what is about to unfold. Right to the very end, the madness, if that is what it is, has its palpable method. She never loses control. As a result, the performance is all the more powerful and chilling for the absence of conventional histrionics.
The only caveat I would enter relates to the sound design. During many of the key speeches, there is a persistent percussive, portentous, underscore which is wholly unnecessary. When words and acting more than suffice it is both patronising to the audience and distracting for all concerned. Who needs reminding that this or that episode is a particular turning point of significance? For this reason, I am reluctant to award the five stars that otherwise this production deserves.
Running Time: 1hr 40 min (No interval)
PLAYING UNTIL 22 APRIL 2023
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