Review: ★★★★★ MEDEA, Soho Place Theatre

As William Congreve said in The Mourning Bride “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.

Dominic Cooke brings us a 90-minute intense, innovative, brilliant and devastating revival of Euripides’ play. Starring Sophie Okonedo (Anthony and Cleopatra) as Medea and Ben Daniels (The Normal Heart) as Jason and all other male roles.

Euripides’ play is a story about how betrayal can transform a woman from the purest love to the most venomous hate as Medea has been cheated on by Jason. First produced in 431BC writer Robinson Jeffries brings us this new adaptation of the original text to the newly opened Soho Place Theatre in Tottenham Court Road.

The play takes place in the round on a bare stage with a small staircase descending into the basement. The intimacy of the theatre allows the audience to be up close and personal with the action so the intensity of the hate and the gut-wrenching sadness is truly felt. In addition, the three women of Corinth (Penny Layden, Jo McInnes and Amy Trigg) are seated in the auditorium and spoke their lines as if they are members of the audience.

Like many other Ancient Greek plays they show what it means to be human and the lengths we are willing to go to get what we want. In the case of Medea, if someone hurts you, you want that person to feel as bad as you did. Inflicting the same amount of pain on our enemy that they did on us.

Medea’s anger is born out of her grief when she learns of her husband’s affair. Over the course of the play, we are given an insight into Medea’s plot, figuring out how she should do it, the obstacles she’ll face, and how she finds the courage to go through with it. It’s a commentary on how dangerous ambition can be when the drive for revenge becomes so strong you will consider even the most inhuman acts to be an appropriate course of action. Demonstrating that even the softest person can become engulfed in black and deep desires and can perform awful things.

I found several links to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the power of unstable and blasphemous ambition leading to both physical and mental harm. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this was one of the inspirations for Shakespeare when he wrote the play. One thing the Scottish play gives us that Medea doesn’t is the subsequent circumstances that follow having “done the deed” (Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2). The Macbeth’s become mentally unstable, with Lady Macbeth committing suicide and Macbeth being killed on the battlefield. I found myself asking questions such as, what next for Medea? Will she feel any remorse? Will her world cave in after the dust of her revengeful fantasies settle? Will she lose her mind even more? The answers lie with Euripides. Another interesting connection is how Macbeth and Medea both trade their soul for revenge and ambition, Macbeth sells his soul for titles; Medea sells hers for revenge.

The performances of Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels are outstanding. As the leads they barely had any time off stage, especially Ben playing all the male parts. In between roles he prowled the stage in slow motion like a domineering male planet orbiting Medea’s world, re-entering scenes wearing different costumes to distinguish his characters.

Sophie Okonedo perfectly captured Medea’s journey from grief to a powerful unapologetic figure raging for revenge. It’s hard to find the right words to describe her work, she was simply brilliant.

There are so many things you can take away and questions you can ask after seeing this play. Some could ask, is it about the birth of evil? Or how can someone become a danger to society as well as themselves? Can revenge ever be justified even to the smallest extent?

What we do know is, the Greeks have a fantastic ability to capture human nature and what we as a species can do. How a need for justice lies within all of us and how dangerous we can be when we act on those impulses.

Medea runs at the Soho Place Theatre until 22nd April.

Oliver Gower

Oliver Gower
Oliver Gower

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