Magic in its modernism: Rachel Cusk’s marvellous new Medea for the Almeida GREEKS season

“I can unmake you the same way I made you. I write the story, remember?” Rachel Cusk’s brilliant vision of Euripides’ Medea for the Almeida transforms the barbarian witch into a modern-day writer: but, just as the ancient Medea’s spells had immortal force, so the new Medea’s power with words, particularly her fearless refusal to compromise on the truth, alienates and terrifies all those around her, and endows her with the ability to change her own destiny – at the terrible price of her sons’ lives. However, in Cusk’s profoundly contemporary version, Medea doesn’t actually shed blood: after all, “There are more ways of killing a child than just stabbing it to death like some wild animal.” She commits an equally unthinkable act: she abandons them. And sure enough, her children die, just as surely as if she had butchered them with her bare hands as Euripides decreed. From an elegantly restrained (Pinteresque) opening scene, Cusk sets and maintains an atmosphere of brutal tension which lashes out regularly into loud, snarling rows, placing the family on the psychological torture-rack of a messy divorce to reap a whirlwind harvest: gender battles, marriage myths, bitter recriminations about mid-life crises, all delineated with savage realism. Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have lovingly termed Euripides “the human”, but in Medea he shows us all the sides of being human we are ashamed to acknowledge, the play’s finger placed unerringly on our darkest secrets, nastiest failings, and most vulnerable weaknesses.

One of this Medea’s surprise strengths is how closely it can follow Euripides despite its modern setting, with many vital details (the cursed necklace, Glauce’s burning by poison, Aegeus’s childlessness and Medea’s clever bargain for safety in return for a cure, even her final vindication by the power of the sun) lovingly and cleverly transposed by Cusk, despite the introduction of an entire new character (a Brazilian cleaner, acting as a more sympathetic Chorus) and plenty of new ideas. Even Cusk’s text, which bristles and glowers with four-letter-words of all hues, will suddenly chime intimately with the original Greek when you least expect it. Above all, Jason (a debonair Justin Salinger) is as suave, self-serving and loathsome as always; a man keen to have his way, and not interested in being made to feel bad about it. It says much for the failure of modern feminism that Cusk didn’t need to update Jason whatsoever to make his opinions, and his position, absolutely believable for a modern audience.

Kate Fleetwood is mesmerising as Medea, a taut, sinous pillar of vengeful contempt, turning her fury directly on the audience, as well as Jason: “It gives you a thrill to watch me suffer. The less I pretend, the more of a kick you get.” Our society piles just as much pressure on an abandoned wife to accept her husband’s decision as the ancient Greeks did; a Chorus of yummy mummies swap school-gate gossip and condemn: “How could she not have known?” A sudden switch from prose to rhyming couplets from a divine hermaphrodite Messenger strikes an odd note at first, but listen closely: the big finale is as horrifying, and disturbing, as ever.

Reviewed for TheatreCat.com.

Until 14 November at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, as part of their GREEKS season. Box office: 020 7359 4404

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