There can be few more daunting theatrical challenges than bringing Greek tragedy to life for a contemporary audience; the most successful productions have generally been the most stylized: Ariane Mnouchkine’s epic “Les Atrides,” Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s “Gospel at Colonus” and, for that matter, Martha Graham’s seminal “Clytemnestra” and “Night Journey” dances spring to mind.
Nearly two years ago, London’s adventurous Almeida Theater Company premiered Alistair Elliot’s translation of Euripedes’ “Medea” for a production starring Diana Rigg; the later West End production has now made its way to Broadway, compliments of the ubiquitous Bill Kenwright. Rigg is not likely to be as strong a box office draw here as she is in London, and without wildly enthusiastic reviews, the 10-week run will probably be a struggle.
“Medea” is a tale of vengeance so raw it challenges the heart as well the soul: An enchantress, Medea has used her sorcery ruthlessly to aid husband Jason in his rise to power, only to see him abandon her and their two children for a marriage of convenience to a younger woman, which is where the play begins. After bemoaning her state to the Women of Corinth and a nurse, and pleading with Jason to reconsider, Medea exacts a terrible revenge, murdering the new wife and her own children.
Probably the best-known adaptation of Euripedes’ “Medea” is Robinson Jeffers’, which was performed on Broadway in 1947 by Judith Anderson and revived in 1974, and for which Zoe Caldwell won a Tony in 1982.
Elliot’s new, condensed translation has a vernacular, though not vulgar, tone that makes the story accessible, and set designer Peter J. Davison has provided an abstract setting. It’s a cave of rusted metal panels that play a major role in the production’s final moments, a shocking coup de theatre further heightened by the stunning lighting design of Wayne Dowdeswell and Rui Rita.
But Rigg’s performance left me cold. Anderson’s Medea was by all accounts a whorl of rage and passion. By contrast, Rigg is technically assured but her performance is notably contained; though she has plenty of vocal power, the delivery isn’t well nuanced and comes across as oddly remote.
Moreover, while there’s plenty of regret and sense of injustice suggested by the performance, there’s no hint in it of Medea’s past, which is full of her own opportunism, not to mention bewitchery. This is a rich vein that a contemporary production ought to capitalize on.
The supporting performances are mostly good — especially fine is John Turner’s Creon — but Jonathan Kent’s direction adds to the production’s disconnectedness. It’s stagy, particularly in the choral movement. There’s still plenty to admire here. But this “Medea” bypasses the heart.