Why does Medea go postal? Is it a) because her husband has eloped with a younger model and the resulting jealousy has eaten out her insides, b) because, even now, women are tied down in a way that men aren’t or c) because of the demands of a consumer-capitalist society underpinned by fear and competition? In Mike Bartlett’s contemporised version of Euripides’ tragedy, it’s all of the above and it rather impinges on the momentum required for the tragic tumble. He’s so careful to knit her into the modern world that she’s too tied down to really freefall. It muddies the simple purity of her vengeance.
Today’s Medea lives in an identikit new-build estate in an unnamed provincial suburb, pretty much a single-mother with a mute son. Her husband’s getting remarried imminently and she’s about to be kicked out of the home they once shared – with its schizophrenic pea-green and blood red décor, each room pristinely compartmentalised and cut off. She’s off work and in trackie-bums. Her head’s a mess and her hair’s in an even worse state. No wonder that prying neighbours and colleagues keep popping over to check up on her; Rachael Stirling looks like she’s shortcircuiting and set to blow.
Her decisions are snap and haphazardly impulsive. Going through the motions of dinner – fish fingers in the oven, peas on the hob – her hand suddenly, inexplicably, plunges into the saucepan of boiling water to scoop out the veg. Shit, you think. You can see the bubbles rising in the pan. Fuck. There’s an urge to leap up, put an arm around her shoulder and led her slowly away. Both from the pan and from her son, who sits watching, as inert as Argon.
That, my friends, is how you resurrect the spirit and scale of Greek tragedy; by subverting banal routine into jaw-dropping, stomach-clenching horrors. Poisoned dresses and axes-wielding rampages don’t work so well. (Oh, this? It’s just your average 21st Century poison gown. Kate Moss at Topshop, actually. £59.99.)
Basically, Bartlett falls between two (Smallbone kitchen) stools. He wants to honour the original, sticking rather strictly to its structure, but also to bring it bang up to date. The intention was always to clear the grandiosity and ground the abstract, which it certainly does, but the end result is half-banal, half-overblown. Wailing from the rooftop, bloodied and axe aloft, Bartlett’s Medea cries out that her son will ‘always be remember for his maths test…and for coming second in the egg and spoon race’. It’s a long way from convincing, which Ruari Murchison’s Brecht-meets-The-Sims design with its photographed house-front and gridded floor acknowledges, but doesn’t excuse. To really modernise a Greek tragedy, you have to start afresh, as Thomas Ostermeier did with his gun-totting Nora in A Doll’s House, then stand and fall by your interpretation.
Ironic, then, that clean slates run throughout Bartlett’s version, both for Medea and Jason personally and on a wider socio-economic level. I’m not convinced that he grounds those accusations firmly or precisely enough, though. It reads as a list of symptoms – identikit lives and toyworld choices, aspirational neurosis and inhumane egocentricity – without searching for a root cause and, as such, looks both generic and voguishly wagon-jumping (despite Bartlett’s impressively critical track-record in the area.)
As with Caroline Bird’s Trojan Women at the Gate, there’s admirable ambition, but by not thinking big or bold enough, Bartlett ends up with a Meh-dea.