Medea @Soho Place – Review
Euripides’ Medea is one of the more affecting tragedies emanating from 5th century Athens. For those unfamiliar, it’s a sequel to Jason and the Argonauts – but if you’re thinking it’s in the style of the Hollywood version with Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack, you would be mistaken. Medea (Sophie Okonedo) and Jason (Ben Daniels) have returned from Colchis (modern-day Georgia) with their two boys, and are guests of the Corinthian king Creon. There Jason’s ambition leads him into the arms of Creon’s daughter Glauce, and it is in this atmosphere of betrayal that the play opens.
Medea, the Cholchian beauty who saved Jason’s life and killed her own brother in helping him escape with the Golden Fleece, the prize that has made him famous throughout Greece, has been discarded. She is heartbroken and angry, seething with rage and frustration as Creon and Jason decide on her fate. This is a heroic passion, though, one that was all too familiar to ancient audiences, and in this production Sophie Okonedo has captured that fury perfectly. It’s allied to a wildness – as the Nurse says, ‘She [Medea] glares at us like a mad bull or a lioness guarding her cubs.’ The xenophobia baked into Greek culture is exposed by Euripides as the foreign princess is viewed as suspect, unknown and therefore dangerous.
The play was written during the Athenian golden age, and the city is represented by their mythical king Aegeus, father to Theseus and all that is seen as good and right in ancient Greece. In a memorable scene, Okonedo and Daniels’ chemistry is apparent as Medea manipulates Aegeus into granting her safe haven – but from what?
The Jason we see here is abhorrent and Ben Daniels exposes his hubris as he arrogantly dismisses Medea and puts her helpful interventions down to favour from the gods. Well, the gods are certainly watching.
There’s no doubt who the star of the show is, however. I’ve seen a number of quite awe-inspiring Medeas over the years, but Sophie Okonedo is first and foremost. There was a moment when it became apparent as to what Medea had done, and I felt as though she was looking directly at me – there was a calm hatred in that look, hands dripping with blood, and it sent a shiver down my spine. I’m not sure many actors can do that.
Dominic Cooke’s production is a beautiful adaptation of Euripides’ masterpiece, in the newly built Soho Place which is both intimate and impressive. I must confess I was slightly apprehensive beforehand given modern productions are so keen to ‘update’ original material, but that concern proved redundant from the moment the play began. Even were this not to be the case, though, it’s worth going simply for Okonedo’s performance alone.
Medea @Soho Place is on until 22nd April.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.