Rupert Goold’s Greek season at the Almeida has undoubtedly been a theatrical highlight of 2015. First, we had Robert Icke’s ferocious adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Then, it was Ben Whishaw in Anne Carson’s update of Euripides’ Bakkae. And finally, it is Rachel Cusk’s interpretation of the same tragedian’s Medea, directed by Goold himself and starring Kate Fleetwood as the eponymous lead.
Cusk’s Medea comes from a highly personal place, it seems. Famous – or should that be infamous – for her controversially honest books on parenthood and divorce, Cusk has created a Greek Tragedy with her own experiences stamped all over it.
Medea is now a writer, Jason (Justin Salinger) is her famous actor of an ex-husband, and (spoiler alert – although I think it is safe to reveal this now the run has finished) she no longer slays her two children with a knife, but metaphorically ruins their lives – and that of Jason and his mistress – by writing a popular vicious satire on them. Clearly, Cusk believes that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Her decision to keep the child-killing to a minimum has provoked tidal waves of controversy. To some, it is a stroke of genius. To others, a literary crime of heinous proportions. In truth, it is both.
Just like in Euripides, Cusk’s Medea sheds her assigned role of mother/wife and redefines what it means to be a woman. She would rather suffer, and make those around her suffer, than live a lie. Truth, to her, is all. By couching Medea’s act of transgression (for want of a better word) in 21st Century terms rather than ancient ones, Cusk offers a fresh perspective on a 2000 year-old idea and in doing so makes us realise that Medea, for all her screams and curses, is simply a woman rejecting the role society has given her.
Theatrically, however, it is something of a copout. From the outset, like with much Greek Tragedy, the gut is twisted tighter and tighter with the expectation of what is to come. When you see Hamlet, you are waiting for the catharsis of Claudius’ death. When you see A View From The Bridge, you are waiting for Eddie Carbone’s tragic demise. And when you see Medea, you are waiting for some horrendous child-slaughter. By denying the audience their ending – at least in the traditional sense – Cusk leaves a hole that has not been filled.
And, dare I say it, there is also something slightly off-putting about her decision to produce such a personalised adaptation. According to Goold’s programme notes, “there is nothing more political than the exceptionally personal”. Whilst this may be the case, it is also true that there is nothing as sickeningly self-important either. Cusk’s writing is revelatory, undoubtedly, but it is also aggravatingly proud at times as well.
Technically, however, there is nothing at fault with Goold’s production. Fleetwood is a powerful, cat-like, visceral lead, and has strong support from Salinger as a recognisably shit-headed Jason. Andy de la Tour is enjoyable as a Jeremy Clarkson-esque Creon, preaching is pub philosophy in a misogynistic drawl, as is Richard Cant as a camp, mincing Aegeus. The staging, the set, and the direction are all worthy of praise as well. The decision to portray the chorus as a homogeneous group of baby-coddling stay-at-home mums – the antithesis of Medea’s strength and individuality – is a masterful stroke in particular.
This is (or rather, this was – the final performance on November 14th marked the end of the Almeida Greeks) sharp and witty, and it genuinely does present Euripides in a wholly new light. In its way, it is a ground-breaking production. It’s just not a particularly enjoyable one.