Thank goodness I saw Helen McCrory's sublime Medea courtesy of National Theatre Live last week.
Otherwise I might find myself becoming complacent about being happy in motherhood.
Yup, I am that age. I cannot go out to the theatre any more, because of young children, recession (don't tell me it's over), and exorbitant ticket and babysitting fees. But I CAN go to the local cinema with a friend and some popcorn, and sit amongst a throng of grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, all pretending we are what we once were, and down on the South Bank.
It is a strange experience to hear big-voiced theatrical projection and see facial expressions meant for the back of a proscenium theatre, brought to you in close up on a cinema screen. An old friend of mine was also in the production, and frankly, looked as if he was gurning. Others have assured me that from the stalls, he was excellent.
So it is not a perfect transmission of the theatrical experience, but it would not have mattered whether Helen McCrory were on film, TV, stage or at a bus stop. She possessed and was possessed by the ghost of Medea like nothing I have ever seen before.
This is Euripides reworked by Ben Power, but so brilliantly written that, although we have the sense of being in the twenty-first century, with a posh wedding, a Chorus dressed in Desperate Housewives chic, Medea's boys watching TV lying on sleeping bags, and Medea herself wearing her husband Jason's trousers, we are simultaneously in fifth-century BC Corinth. It is also the National Theatre's first ever Medea. Could it be that both the taboo of the subject matter and the purity of the tragedy are just too difficult for modern theatregoers? All the more important in these days of working mothers, recomposed families, single mothers — families and the women in them under such pressure — that we see representations of what they might be going through inside.
Because that's what Medea is — she is nothing but her internal white-hot pain and rage, jealousy of her man Jason's new wife, fury at his abandonment and betrayal of her and their sons. This furnace of passions leads her, step by awful step, towards the mental readiness to murder what he and she hold most dear, in order to avenge herself. We are powerless to prevent it, relegated to the sidelines with the nurse and the Chorus. All we can do is sit in the dark and bear witness to what will inevitably happen.
All the power of the tragedy is in its inexorable progress from 'what is she capable of?' to 'what has she done?' In most tragedy, the wheel of fortune turns, and a fatal flaw in the protagonist plays its part in his downfall — there are extenuating circumstances. In Medea, the wheel of fortune is in the hands, not of the gods, but of her self-interested husband, prepared to drop her for a shot at personal power, and content to justify this as done in the name of his real (but abandoned) family. The wheel has turned before the play even starts, it is not part of the plot machinery. When we are introduced to Medea, she is already alone, back against the wall, to be ousted with her sons from Corinth, while her ex stays to marry into the royal family. Yet for Jason's sake, she has already murdered a member of her own family, her brother, and betrayed her father. It might make one ask whether Jason has it coming?
The real question at the heart of the plot is whether or not Medea is mad. The question subtending that one is whether all women are potentially capable of murdering their children. Is she the exception or a possible, utterly terrifying rule, the deepest fear in all of us, that our mothers might kill us?
For McCrory, playing this exhausting role in 2014, it is vital to assert that Medea is not mad. She is simply refusing the fate, the betrayal, the excommunication, that has been meted out to her, by exacting the ultimate revenge. This interpretation is not about excusing Medea, but explaining her, in order to activate the pity and awe the audience must feel. McCrory, I think, plays Medea as warning. The fact that there is precedent, that she has killed before, tells the nurse (although Jason is too blinded by his self-justifications) what she is likely to move towards.
McCrory's performance makes very clear that Medea never denies that killing her own children will also destroy her capacity for normal wellbeing. She knows very well that what she is about to do is both morally wrong, and that she will find it unbearable to live with her own action — and that she will going on living. In that sense she is Beckettian. It is impossible that she should live with her crime, but she does. The strength that Medea presents at the end of the NT production, as she heaves the boys' bodies, encased in blood-soaked sleeping bags, onto each shoulder, and labours, step by excruciating step, off stage towards Aegeus and Athens, is desolating to behold. She has her single moment of revenge — she sees the look on Jason's face — and then she faces the rest of her life, accompanied only by the knowledge of what she has done.
Is she evil? It is certainly premeditated, if only for a day, the space of the play: she has to talk herself into killing the boys, and her courage fails her many times. Nothing can justify the boys' murder, which is precisely why she does it. She believes that nothing justifies what Jason has done to her. Simply killing Jason's new wife, Glauce, daughter of King Creon, and Creon himself, with a poisoned robe, is not enough of a revenge. The only way to transmit fully to Jason what he has done to her, is to do something still more unjustifiable.
The act is evil, it speaks of evil, but she is a vehicle of the causes of evil — indifference, exploitation, the desire for power at any price. Those qualities are present in Jason, not Medea — she cares too much, loves Jason crazily, has been too completely crushed in love, is utterly bereft of power. Jason does not deserve to have his sons die, nothing redeems their death, they are crushed by her fury and thirst for revenge. At the point of committing the act, those passions have consumed her and transmuted into commitment. After the act, she returns to herself. The act itself has to remain beyond our — even her — understanding, in order to carry the power it does. This is why it takes place off stage (it must not be seen, it is literally obscene, ob-scaena). She herself is not mad as she does it, although her determination looks identical to madness.
Euripides' Medea seems to me a near-perfect example of the rules and machinery of Greek tragedy, wrought through innovations to that form (the protagonist is female, she is alone, there are no Gods, she is part Goddess).
Roald Dahl/Tim Minchin's Matilda is the index of pushy parenting for our times. Medea takes the temperature of the desperate pressure women are under to have it all by doing it all, without any guarantee of personal fulfilment or security, and shows the ultimate price.