For those who are not familiar with the play…it does NOT end well…for anybody. This may be the Greek-est of all Greek tragedies, the innocent are murdered, brutally; the guilty live, not entirely unpunished and everybody loses.
To understand the play, it helps to know the back story, so bear with me, we will get to the meat of the subject shortly.
Jason, our mythic “hero,” is sailing with the Argonauts in search for the Golden Fleece which is owned by King Aeetes, who happens to have a daughter named Medea. The King agrees to give Jason the fleece if he can complete three labors, which are obviously impossible, but Medea, having fallen in love with Jason, (or having had a love spell cast on her by the Gods) and just happening to be a sorceress as well (she is descended from the Gods after all), agrees to help Jason get the Fleece. Having achieved his goal, Jason agrees to take Medea with him and to distract her father while they make their romantic getaway they kill her brother and scatter his body parts around for her father to find.
So fast forward many years to the beginning of our play and Jason, after having lived with Medea as a devoutly in love couple and having had two sons together, has unceremoniously thrown her over for the King of Corinth’s younger, blonder and less witchy daughter. We join our characters on the day that Jason is to be married to his new bride. Medea in the days prior has made little secret of her displeasure, making threats both veiled and un-, to the extent that the King of Corinth, fearing for his daughters well fare, has come to banish her and her children into the wilderness. Tearfully and humbly pleading on bended knee for mercy Medea is granted a brief and most unwise reprieve by the King and uses the time less to plan a safe getaway but rather to determine how best to unleash her vengeance on those who have wronged her. Mostly Jason, but she’s okay with some collateral damage as well. In the end she uses her sons to murder her husband’s new wife and father-in-law and then uses her own two hands to slaughter her beloved two sons because she cannot find any other way that she can cause Jason the same level of pain that he has caused her.
I have been told by those whose understanding of this play is more learned than I, that this is a play about feminine empowerment. Of taking control when everyone is seeking to control you. And I get that but I am perhaps too indoctrinated in modern middle class morality to ever feel sympathy for a character that murders her own children.
And having said that we are finally at the meat of this narrative. I, at my core and in my most logical modern mind have no sympathy for Medea. She’s a bit of a lunatic and mean and petty to boot, and while she had numerous opportunities to get away and be safe she chooses to stay and seek revenge no matter the cost. But…Helen McCrory’s outstanding performance in this show had me entranced and in the end in tears. It is a powerful, gripping and incredibly intense portrayal that made me feel what she was feeling, her anger, angst, anguish and very true agony of killing her children. Ms. McCrory portrays Medea as a proud, impressive and seemingly indomitable woman and you really want her to succeed and win out over the people who have abused her; I’m there with her (solidarity sisters!) right up until she decides, “No, I think I really need to kill the kids, that’ll really show him!” Perhaps it helps a little that the children are little more than cut-out figures in the play and you never connect with them emotionally. Perhaps her actions are mitigated by the general callousness about human life that was prevalent at that time. Perhaps, being a descendant of the Gods, she has less natural human sympathy. Perhaps its just a cautionary tale about obsessive love and ceding your happiness to the control of someone else.
Regardless of which way you swing on the Medea question, there is no question this was a powerful and emotive production and the largest share of that credit goes to Ms. McCrory and her electrifyingly chilling performance. Look for it and other interesting screenings in a theater near you at NT Live website.