NOT long after the books of the Old Testament were finished, Euripides surged to fame. His characters, from Mediterranean oral history, were contemporaneous with the Old Testament and known to the Gospel-writers. Two millennia on, their power remains. Two of his tragedies are currently running in the West End, with the chance to see two female protagonists who tower above history.
Soho Place is a brand-new theatre, and Medea is only its third production. The script is the 1940s Robinson Jeffers version, poetic, formal, and experimental. Marion Bailey (The Crown’s Queen Mother) is the Nurse who opens proceedings with gravitas. Ben Daniels plays each male part in turn with consummate physicality: at first a tutor, then King Creon, a sinuous Jason, and foppish Aegeus. In between, he slow-marches around the perimeter, as production is in the round — a circle inside a rectangle.
But everything awaits Sophie Okonedo’s Medea, who first climbs into the space through a sunken staircase, in a plain shift dress and dark glasses, like a partied-out Oscar-winner. She remains on stage for almost the entirety of the performance, magnetic and flickering between states of being: vengeful over Jason’s leaving her for the king’s daughter, protective of her sons, and remorseful at having given up so much for the man who discarded her.
The Chorus is three women in different sections of the stalls, a clever device to involve the audience. This is us and now, and heightens the involvement. Dominic Cooke’s direction and Vicki Mortimer’s design both have a firm grasp of the action: drama, history, and the spaces in between. Its intense simplicity is never overplayed. When the great wife and mother commits infanticide, it still shocks, all hearts broken.
OVER at the National’s Lyttelton, Phaedra, in a reboot for the Netflix generation, packs a similar punch. It is a more complicated production, and a Robert Icke-style rewrite/update by Simon Stone.
This time, Phaedra is Helen, a Shadow Cabinet member with a diplomat husband (Paul Chahidi, solid and involving). She has a precocious schoolboy son (Archie Barnes) and liberal adult daughter (Mackenzie Davis), whose soft, trendy husband (John MacMillan) works in tech. Their house is a glass box. It’s very north London and now.
Johan Persson © sohoplaceSophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels in the production of Medea at Soho Place
But into this domestic tinderbox strides Sofiane (Assad Bouab). As Helen/Phaedra, Janet McTeer springs into action when faced with this son of her ex-lover who died so many years ago in Morocco. The dinner party ends on a sour note, and the daughter Isolde traces him, via Instagram, to Birmingham, bringing him back for another family meeting. He is an activist and journalist who had to leave his country in a hurry. Bouab’s still and entrancing performance brings everyone into his orbit.
Euripides wrote two versions of this play. The first, Hippolytus Unveiled, showed the highly sexed king’s wife falling for her chaste stepson. The second dampened that down to make Phaedra more acceptable. Stone and his cast might be working with the more complete second version, but the original cougar Phaedra is the one channelled here. McTeer smokes and smoulders throughout. When Helen, alone with Sofiane, goes in for the kiss, we get it. When she meets him in hotel rooms and treks to the Midlands, we get it — except, all the while, her perfect family life and career risk disintegration.
As in every Greek tragedy, when it can, it will. The denouement scene in a restaurant is edge-of-the-seat stuff. Now everyone knows, and it’s over, and there’s more. From all this, what coming back? The updated revenge is affectingly modern. Before, Phaedra falsely accused her stepson of rape. Here the more contemporary sin is to report a man for overstaying his visa, and he is fatally deported.
Stone has written and directed with remarkable, fluent clarity. Chloe Lamford’s whip-smart set and Mel Page’s stylish costumes are equally and deservedly part of the action. The ending, as the glass box revolves one final time, is gut-wrenching and timeless.
These are perfect plays for Lent, with malice and mortification in measure. How do we know the lengths we stray from the divine relationship, and the vital steps needed for restitution and repentance? Standing between the Old and New Testaments, Euripides poses questions to which we still seek answers today.
Medea, adapted by Robinson Jeffers from Euripides, is at Soho Place, Charing Cross Road, London W1, until 22 April. Bookings: phone 0330 333 5962. sohoplace.org
Phaedra by Simon Stone, after Euripides, Seneca, and Racine, is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 8 April. Bookings: phone 020 3989 5455. nationaltheatre.org.uk