Jeremy Malies in the West End
23 February 2023
Worst mother in Greek tragedy? It’s a competitive field but Medea must be an outstanding contender. It’s a hugely demanding role but Sophie Okonedo rises magnificently to the challenge as the title character in Dominic Cooke’s production of the Euripides tragedy at @sohoplace.
Ben Daniels and Sophie Okonedo. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Okonedo immediately establishes the glamour and allure of her character as she describes her upbringing at Colchis (now Georgia) on the Black Sea. And Cooke reinforces the theme that however high-born she may be, Medea is now an immigrant living in a society (Corinth) where she will always be an outsider. With an eye for topicality, the production team ensures that the fragile status of any kind of migrant (Medea later becomes a refugee) is an overriding theme running through a compact evening of 90 minutes with no interval.
Cooke has opted for the go-to translation of this work by the American polymath Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962). The translation is unmannered, lucid, and almost crystalline. There is barely a piece of figurative language throughout but when Medea and Jason reflect on their travels, the verse becomes evocative and thrilling as they hurtle through adventures including their acquisition of the Golden Fleece and the gory battles this involved.
There is an intensity and a physical element to Okonedo’s acting that left me in no doubt that her character has been capable of killing her own brother and scattering his body parts in the ocean. This is a magical actress depicting a sorceress; it’s a heady concoction. Okonedo suggests all this on a slow burn and is never overemphatic to the point of delivering impassioned speeches with her hands in her pockets while relying on minute gestures in this intimate venue. But even with this restraint she is in flux between sarcasm, mockery, irony, and rhetoric. She is at her most endearing when she prays to her ancestors for wisdom.
An unusual but by no means gimmicky aspect is that Ben Daniels plays not only Jason but all the male roles meaning we see him as a tutor, a messenger, Aegeus, and crucially Creon, the father of Jason’s new bride-to-be. As the messenger he must be sprightly and as Jason he needs to be bellicose. As Creon he can depict a playing age similar to his actual age. He is rarely out of our sight, often prowling the circumference of the playing space like a slow-motion dancing robot. It’s a prodigious display of technique but he avoids any bravura. Cooke and costume supervisor Helen Johnson ensure that Daniels’s entrances and exits are speedy through the simple ruse of leaving his costumes (simple present-day clothes and certainly no Golden Fleece) on the edge of the in-the-round stage.
Ben Daniels as Jason. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Daniels is particularly skilful when distinguishing between Jason’s romantic fervour for Glauce (neither seen nor named here) and Creon’s weariness of her as a problem child. My only criticism of the whole project is what I take to be a lazy option by Cooke when he chooses to have Aegeus – who offers Medea sanctuary in Athens – speak with a stage campness when it makes no sense in terms of backstory or the current plot. Actor and director could have explored one more less obvious gear. But even if stylized, Daniels is empathetic as Aegeus who pleads for some of Medea’s potions to render him fertile, saying in pathetic cadences that death for a childless man is true annihilation. It’s a bleak moment in a sombre evening that elsewhere has shafts of humour.
Jeffers’s text is available online under an Internet Archive licence. Looking at it as I transcribed my notes, I have realized that Cooke has deviated from it not a jot. You leave the theatre chilled by the extent of Medea’s psychosis. She tells Jason that he cannot see the corpses of his children and might like to look for solace amid the stinking wreck that is his ship the Argo which will be his last refuge. My father used to say that the Greeks are all but our contemporaries in terms of the primal emotions on show in the plays but culturally they are so distant that you might as well put actors in jeans and t-shirts. The Jeffers translation calls for harps in the stage directions (avoided here) but otherwise it is set in a timeless void.
Cooke has the elder child (Ben Connor on the night I attended) playing with an Action Man and Rubik’s Cube while dressed in a Marvel superhero cape. With no real historical context for choice of props, the modern content is not anachronistic, and it serves plot and message. Medea’s faithful governess (Marion Bailey outstanding) mentions wistfully that nothing is ever private in a Greek city. We are reminded of this when sound designer Gareth Fry has a helicopter circling as the action peaks. But there have been many hints that this is a 24/7 news cycle and the chopper we hear is as likely to be Sky News as it is police or other first responders. Fry achieves wonderful reverberating effects when the Oracle is consulted and begin its pronouncements with thunder.
Sophie Okonedo as Medea. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Vicki Mortimer’s design features rough unfinished mosaics centre stage (with steps leading down to an unseen underground bunker where the children are killed) into which lighting designer Neil Austin inserts large fluorescent studs. The rest of the set is all ellipses and arcs. There is no actual revolve but the circular stage and Daniels’s constant walking around it reinforce the truism that this story will be repeated. And of course, it has been repeated across all cultures and in bizarre ways.
Simon Stone’s radical director-led version of Medea which visited the Barbican four years ago focused on a case of the “Medea Complex” from 1995 in which Debora Green, a Kansas physician, is believed to have poisoned her husband with ricin after discovering his infidelity and finally set fire to the family home killing two of their children.
There is a good deal of shared light so that we can see the three female chorus members (Penny Layden, Jo McInnes, and Amy Trigg) speak their initial lines from stalls seating before they later advance to the edge of the stage. It’s a clever technique that subtly suggests that they have come from a community of which we too are a part.
Judith Anderson (1948), Zoe Caldwell (1982), and Diana Rigg (1994) have all won Tonys playing Medea using this Jeffers translation. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a Broadway transfer for this production and a similar award for Okonedo who has already won a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun.