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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Almeida Theatre


  Kate Fleetwood and Justin Salinger/ Ph: Marc Brenner

It’s tempting to try and imagine how the initial conversation between director Rupert Goold and his actress wife – and mother of the couple’s two young children – Kate Fleetwood went. I like to think that it was during a particularly fraught breakfast involving a messily spilt jar of strawberry jam that Goold asked tentatively, “Darling, have you ever considered playing Medea?” Whatever the genesis, the end result is quite simply one of the most blistering plays of the year.

Medea is the third and final instalment of the Almeida Theatre’s – of which Goold is the trailblazing artistic director – Greeks season, which has been an exhilarating rethink of millennia-old drama. Robert Icke’s fresh look at the Oresteia was splendid, but this is even better, for Euripides’ Medea is a play that has surely been screaming out for a modern updating. A ferociously warring couple, a younger and prettier mistress, and two children forlornly trapped in the no-man’s-land middle – what could possibly be more 21st century than that?

It was a particularly inspired move to ask Rachel Cusk to write this new version. Cusk, an accomplished novelist, has made headlines in recent years for her fearsomely honest memoirs about motherhood and divorce. When it comes to eviscerating a marriage, Cusk is without equal. She tears into the rapidly deteriorating situation between Jason (Justin Salinger) and Medea (Fleetwood) with a relish akin to bloodlust and has the couple frequently hurl abuse at each other down their iPhones while their children, pawns in a game of hatred, listen helplessly. It is no coincidence that this Medea is a feminist writer and that she exacts her ultimate revenge over Jason, now an actor, by her sheer skill as a wordsmith.

Fleetwood, previously Tony Award-nominated for her Lady Macbeth in Goold’s production of the Scottish play, is fearsome in her soured passion. She’s silent first of all, while others lecture her prissily on the failure of both her feminist principles and feminine charms, but once she spins round to face us, long black hair hanging like a threat, there is no stopping her. Those startling razor-sharp cheekbones in her compelling feline face look as if they could, of their own accord, slit the throat of her unfaithful husband. The intensity of Fleetwood’s performance is inspiring and unrivalled, offset as it is by a stage-load of equivocation. The chorus is re-spun as five women with babies, so-called “yummy mummies,” whose façade of smugness gradually slips to reveal raw desperation. How they loathe – and admire – Medea for the way she never attempts to conceal the anguish she is feeling.

A chic, minimalist set – Jason and Medea argue memorably about who gets to keep the kitchen table – is gradually deconstructed into an empty wilderness, and the costumes too start to assume aspects of the epic, the out of time, as the drama is wound tight for its inevitable climax. A lengthy Messenger’s speech at the end is freighted with way too many crucial plot points, but this is a minor flaw in what is undoubtedly the coolest, and most vital, show in London this autumn.


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