Venue: The Drama Barn
Running: Until 24 October
Frayja Winterson and Emily Thommes’ Medea is a personal and powerful interpretation. Some modern concessions have been made, most particularly in the choice of Kenneth MacLeish’s translation – visceral and violent to its teeth. However, far less of what is perceived as the Greek tradition is dispensed with than is usual in recent approaches to the classics. A decision that could easily have produced a schizophrenic production, in Winterson and Thommes’ capable hands the production achieves a fine balance. There are some faults, often down to execution rather than instinct. Case in point: the visually simple, but effective set could have been utilised more, since it provided some of the shows most striking moments. However, on the whole the show is a perceptive take on a classic.
Often Medea can lapse into something of a showcase for a particular young actress and certainly Rosie Fletcher’s performance is dominating in all the ways the character requires. However the cast’s ensemble work in the key element in humanising what could otherwise have been a singularly distant role. Each actor understands their role is in part to highlight an aspect of Medea as a human being and make her actions, if no less awful, understandable. In particular Ellie McAlpine’s Nurse holds her own against the unfortunate dehumanisation always so close at hand for an actor in a play so steeped in archetypes. Few other cast member quite reach her success in this, the closest being Emily Russell and Catherine Bennett depictions of childhood, the accomplishment of which proves crucial to the play’s central scene. The same archetype trap catches Freddy Elletson’s Kreon and John Askew’s Jason, who in all other ways fulfil their roles with the force and commitment the character’s classical masculinity demands. With this framework in place Fletcher can stretch her role beyond mere screeching harpy or lying siren to a woman legitimately driven to become society’s monster. She takes with ease to the darker parts of the role, but is able to go beyond them. Her use of voice is stunning. However physicality is here, as throughout, a slightly troubled issue.
The development of Winterson and Thommes’ distinctive physical-theatre style will be evident for any who saw ‘The Star Child’ and suits the piece well. Here it works best in the moments of often visceral interaction – rougher at the edges but more emotionally charged. This is largely since the more regimented work, simply by its very nature, requires a longer rehearsal period. Also, since this comprises the majority of the show’s theatricality and requires utter neutrality from all actors outside of its use it can become somewhat visually weary, despite its structured beauty. James Whittle, Peter Keenan and Duncan Fermor provide a score attuned to the piece in a way only musicians working with skill and openness through a rehearsal process can, and for this deserve high praise. Their work holds the show as one and lifts its best moments to their maximum. Their instrumental decisions and use of light motifs have their roots in the play’s traditions, but their often unusual performance a distinctively modern leaning.
Overall however, do not go in expecting the avant-garde; this is theatre at its roots. At the centre of Medea is one moment of decision and one extreme act. Here the first is powerful, awful logic, the second a simple and deliberately ugly act. When the inevitable end comes you will feel as condemned as Medea, but fulfilled. There is a reason some stories are told, and Winterson and her cast tell this one well.