Revenge is a dish best served not just cold but simply. In Medea, only the second play to find a lengthy stay at the brand-new and appallingly named @sohoplace theatre, it sometimes feels like they’ve done their best to over-complicate it. A booming soundscape, a spot of technical wizardry, and a chorus convincingly buried amongst the audience mostly feel like unnecessary additions. Not to sound too much like a grumpy traditionalist, but the play has managed well without them for 2500 years.
For anyone not entirely up to date on their Euripides, Medea is the wife of Jason (you know, the golden fleece and giant stop-motion skeleton guy), and she’s not very happy. He’s left her, you see, for the wealthy young daughter of King Creon; since Medea is also the powerful witch who helped Jason get his favourite fleece in the first place, this might not have been the best move. Safe to say, things won’t end well for the couple—Medea is a tragedy, after all.
Medea has proved itself an excellent delivery mechanism for some exceptional actors over the centuries, and Dominic Cooke’s staging of Robinson Jeffers’ celebrated translation is no exception. The performances are more important than the odd smoke machine and distant helicopter noises, and here, the whole cast delivers more than delivers.
Ben Daniels might be dealt a rough hand by the staging, which forces him to prowl in a slightly over-egged slow motion around the outside of the stage for much of the runtime. It sounds sinister on paper, and it certainly hammers home the gender-conflict Cooke pulls to the forefront of the story, but in practice, it proves pretty distracting.
Thankfully, his versions of the successive characters (he multi-roles as all the play’s male parts) that rotate in and out to bother Medea prove entertaining sparring partners for Okonedo. They’re different enough to distinguish between them but also eerily similar, so the threat of male violence ebbs but never disappears—it’s remarkably well-judged stuff. It proves one of the most affecting changes in this version.
Sophie Okonedo, meanwhile, is not so much merely magnetic as gravitational. Her Medea treads a delicate line between vengeful and plain mad, delivered with the sort of effortless charisma that is impossible to look away from. She’s also (surprisingly, given the slightly child-murdery source material) funny. In fact, flashes of humour pop up in unexpected places throughout Medea, a welcome reprieve in a tale which is famously one of the definitive tragedies in the Western canon.
Unfortunately, while Medea gets all the meaty bits right, it also throws a series of slightly gimmicky additions into the mix, and very few of them pay off. The whole soundscape, which features a repeating drum motif that wears its ‘we’re in ancient Greece now’ inspiration a little too heavily on its sleeve, pretty much feels like a misfire. Though this version is ostensibly set in the modern day, one siren and a bizarrely misplaced helicopter aside, there’s nothing in the staging to make the most of it. The rain machine in the final act might be an impressive spectacle, but again, it feels a little too much like the creators got a little carried away with what they already had.
But again, trifles like that can’t do much to diminish what’s good about Dominic Cooke’s adaptation, which impressively gets all the essential stuff just right. You could do a lot worse for a tight 90 minutes of Greek theatre on the West End.
Medea is playing at the @sohoplace theatre until 22 April 2023.