You won’t quickly forget the ending of Deborah Warner’s modern-dress West End staging of “Medea,” and if you’re thinking infanticide, guess again. Yes, Fiona Shaw’s riven and riveting anti-heroine does indeed do in her children, and in a manner too suggestively grotesque for some. (A colleague fainted on opening night.) But it’s a measure of the production’s collective risk-taking that Shaw and Warner don’t simply deliver up Euripides’ sharpened razor of a play; they push it to extremes, which in this case means leaving Shaw’s restless Medea — having carried out the unthinkable — teasingly flicking water droplets at her beloved and now irrevocably scarred Jason (Jonathan Cake). Medea’s fury has subsided but her ardor has not: Hers is a desire that won’t be slaked, even by the most awful and vengeful of deaths.
As for dampening Shaw’s own fierce intelligence and love of risk, that, too, seems an impossible feat, and the British (and Irish) theater are happier places for it. Premiered in May at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, the production has arrived — almost entirely recast — on the West End, where it is lending a much-needed jolt to a commercially sluggish (so far, anyway) theater year.
By rights, this “Medea” should take the town, not to mention transfer across the Atlantic, though its bravery clearly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Emboldened by a director (and longtime colleague and friend) in Warner who has generally avoided Shaftesbury Avenue in favor of “found” spaces, especially of late, Shaw dares to find the comic absurdity of Medea’s singular plight. The result is a staging shot through with jags of sardonic humor that nonetheless knows when to sober up. “Speak up, my dear, the Gods can’t hear you,” Medea tells Jason mockingly near the end.
Well, the deities may not be able to, but receptive audiences certainly will. Warner and Shaw’s joint approach can be read as a rebuttal to the kind of “Medea” last embodied on the West End by Diana Rigg, who later won a Tony for the same performance in New York. Rigg was unerringly well spoken, well composed and bizarrely miscast in the part: a soignee cocktail party sophisticate who has decided to knock off a couple of kids on the way to the ball.
Dressed in actual cocktail party attire by Tom Rand, Shaw looks far more glamorous in the role than Rigg ever did, which in turn makes her quicksilver rabidity that much greater a shock. Without playing the feral witch that Zoe Caldwell once was in this role, Shaw gives us an aggrieved and ravaged woman with a compensatory sense of the wry.
“He,” she says derisively while gathering up the children’s toys, followed quickly by “my husband” lest we be unsure of the reference. Elsewhere, she accompanies mention of her status as “granddaughter of the sun” with a quick flex of her muscles not long after she is seen firing blanks in a merciless parody of murderous domesticity.
Too facetious for comfort? Not at all, even if some of the choices may give people pause. (Country music follows the crescendo of noise accompanying the lethal climax.) The truth, as Shaw makes plain, is that her Medea is quite simply smarter and more audacious than anyone else, starting with Cake’s patronizing Jason, whom the imposing actor — late of the National’s “Baby Doll” — plays like an aerobically obsessed stooge, complete with tracksuit. (One of these years, an imaginative casting director will find Cake a role where he isn’t forced into acting his physique.) Medea lives for Jason — not least lustfully — but at times can’t quite believe him, meeting his admissions of doubt with a disbelief all her own, as if unused to a wavering mind.
Her resolve, of course, does waver, and Shaw is at her incisive best ensnared in an internal debate that, try as she might, won’t grant Medea release. (“Their faces shine, my spirits fail,” she says of her offspring, emending her course of action in an aberrant moment of weakness.) Soon after, ever the logician, Medea is back on course: “I give them life, and now I give them death,” she decides, which tallies with the state this solitary outsider in any case occupies. “I’m dead,” she concludes. “What else can I do?”
Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s translation amplifies the modernity of a production pitched to our time — one can imagine Shaw’s Medea arguing her case on any of a dozen chat shows — that locates an ageless potency in the primal emotions that get unleashed. (That said, the occasional line lands with a thud — to wit, Jason’s “You come from God knows where to Greece.”)
With the chorus of women nervously scuttling about Tom Pye’s imposing brutalist set in advance of Medea’s arrival, the stage is set for slaughter, not least because the screams heard at the start turn out, eerily, to be the sounds of children playing. (The excellent sound designer is Mel Mercier.) Imagine one’s surprise, then, when the shadowy figure first glimpsed running maniacally through the palace finally takes quiet and languorous center stage, donning a party hat for good measure. It’s not that life is a party for a Medea whom Shaw makes privy to some sick and sickening joke. Instead, she’s a woman characterized as “weep(ing) her life away” who finds occasion for one last laugh in the furthest recesses of behavior, from which no one — the audience included — emerges unbruised.