Saturday, July 26, 2014

Medea at the National

Maria Callas mockss you from beyond the grave for your bad taste in theatre

I wouldn't normally write up a play like this one, a summer block buster at a prestigious theatre because, well, everybody else does. But everybody else is unfortunately wrong, as usual. Just an hour ago the Telegraph and the Guardian posted four-star reviews (undoubtedly more will follow) of what is quite frankly an entirely missable piece. Not only is the show a dud, but so are the reviews, frothing as they do in a most embarrassing bout of institutional ass-kissing. How anyone could think this production was anything more than passable is quite beyond me, in fact its execution and critical reception is a terrible indication of exactly what is wrong with mainstream theatre. In place of the gruesome, devastating drama "Medea" is, we have a horribly self-aware non-starter, seemingly more indebted to "American Horror Story" than anything else.

This production brings our heroine to a contemporary world which is admittedly well designed, if anachronistic with its hulking great 80s TV set and its iphones (giving us a wholly cringe-worthy "snap-shot" moment). She swigs so much whiskey (just one of a thousand trite and modish details) that to be honest it's a wonder she's not too plastered to even pick up the knife, let alone off her kids. I'm far from a purist, but modern dress here doesn't bring us any deeper into the world of the play. Rather it exaggerates just how outlandish the plot is, and in a ruthless one-two, sucker punches us with a damp and sardonic interpretation of the text. (I can't help but wonder, if the distance provided by a few centuries might not in this case allow for a certain suspension of disbelief which would in really unleash the terror of the tale).

As it is, believing that contemporary characters turn to sun Gods and witchcraft to avenge unfaithful lovers just doesn't ring true. Especially as Helen McCrory has chosen to make Medea a sort of wise-cracking, cynical TV Mom. Playing the text as a black comedy is an out and out disaster from which there can be no recovery. To make this text work, really work, the audience has to be convinced that Medea is a creature of great passion, temperament and power, from the very beginning. And yet McCrory's big entrance is whilst brushing her teeth, and delivering an address to the women of Corinth as though we were in a particularly dry bit of a Noel Coward play. It is impossible to follow the journey of Medea from rational schemer to child-murderer when it is presented on such an ill-conceived arc.

Clearly an actor of immense talents (but bad choices) McCrory is compelling in two scenes in the run up to her murderous rampage, but never enough to make the whole experience worth watching unfortunately. (Whoever was playing Jason was so atrocious I can't even bring myself to google him). The Goldfrapp score chugs along, occasionally eerie, more often than not subtly suggesting that you ought to have stayed home and watched "The Shining" again. Like the Bausch-lite chorus of thirteen bridesmaids, and the onstage fairytale forest, the score was just another optional extra which could not hide the fact that this piece had nothing to offer. We all know where this is going, nobody has left a production of Medea saying, "Well, I didn't see that coming!" since the Peloponnesian Wars. The magic isn't in the plot but in its unfolding, and if you can't make the text sing in a black box studio then no amount of production gloss is going to help you. It is the curse of the "art-experience", nobody now goes to the theatre to watch theater, but rather to have an experience of going to the theatre; which is to say to get the programme, get the ice-cream, get the selfie, get the cultural-cache. It really doesn't matter what's onstage as long as it looks vaguely artistic, and this does, vaguely.

Laurie Hagen, everybody else go back to Debenhams

When you see work as compelling as the work which is to be seen away from the glare of the Travelex Season, on fringe and underground circuits, on budgets which wouldn't even cover Helen McCrory's eyebrow tints, then you have to question how this system manages to plod on. (Largely I suppose because the broadsheets love a good old rehash, and get chucked a couple of glasses of pinot and a handful of vol-au-vents on press night). Can you imagine what Dickie Beau or Laurie Hagen or Jonny Woo could come up with given a National Theatre budget? Work with vision, work that nobody else could dream up, not work which feels as though it were made especially to please coach parties in town on a theatre and dinner package. This "Medea" is a dreadfully middle class moment, about as thrilling as a lunch time spent queueing in Waitrose, with all the horror of missing the last tube.

Mercifully the pace was sharp, and Carrie Cracknell must be given credit for bringing a racially diverse cast onstage. But when the highest compliment that can be paid to a performance is "The chairs were more comfortable than I remember", then I'd say you were best advised to stream Pasolini's cinematic freak out, and let Maria Callas take you to places this entirely missable production simply can't. Or better yet, go and see what the underground innovators are creating. You might not get a colossal stage filled with infinite, frivolous moving parts, but you will at least get a genuine glimpse into the glimmering future of performance, not a dreary peep into the airing cupboard of focus-groups past.

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