How to do Greek tragedy in the modern world? With Medea, the goddess of fire who kills her sons as an act of revenge on her husband’s infidelity, the super-charged, completely recognisable emotions of her situation make the play more accessible than most.
And, as we read in the newspapers almost every day, mothers do still kill their children, usually to save them from a wicked world (violence and abuse tend to be the province of fathers).
Mike Bartlett’s new version of Euripides for Headlong, Watford Palace and the Glasgow Citizens removes the action from Ancient Greece to a new-build housing estate, where Rachael Stirling’s monstrous mum is a displaced middle-class woman in the grip of a terrible depression.
In its ferocity, absolute authority and sheer desperation, this is certainly the performance of Stirling’s career so far, and one that ironically echoes her own mother’s full-on high tragedy performance in the role twenty years ago; whereas Diana Rigg was a fire queen in a metallic palace, Stirling is a fire bird on a street of semis.
The difficulty would therefore be conveying the witchery of the role. She may not depart the scene in a chariot drawn by dragons – will we ever see such magnificence again? – but she can certainly start a fire and cause murderous mayhem by closing her eyes and cursing; and by sending along a deadly wedding present.
There’s just one surviving representative of the decimated chorus, a docile workman, building the next rabbit hutch, who says one word all evening: “Don’t!” The nurse and the tutor are a neighbour and a workmate (Lu Corfield and Amelia Lowdell, both excellent), and King Creon is her landlord (a mouthy, leather-jacketed Christopher Ettridge) whose daughter is Jason’s new fiancée.
There’s a slight jolt when Adam Levy’s grey-suited, dandyish Jason King-like Jason exclaims that he saved Medea’s life in that sea, and the dimension of the play that hinges on dynastic upheaval and world events is entirely missing. But that’s the price we pay for the dogged domestic appropriation of these great plays, and Bartlett’s is as good an example of it as you’ll see.
Bartlett’s own production has just one child instead of the two; he’s literally speechless, and very neatly done by a strangely inexpressive little Joseph Howse at Watford. And the show is immensely well served by Ruari Murchison’s doll’s house of a split-level set, with a blindingly shiny red kitchen, two bedrooms and a staircase where Stirling chills the blood as she charges aloft with a kitchen knife.
The early scenes are charged with a tremendous sense of both particular foreboding and general anomie. The incessant background music includes Bowie’s “A Lad Insane” and Stirling chops carrots with a vengeance, plucking them from a boiling pan with her bare hand.
The one escape route – through Paul Shelley’s affable neighbouring businessman (radically re-modelled from King Aegeus) – proves an illusion; the trap is set and soon snaps horribly shut.