Northern Broadsides scored a hit by taking a chance on Lenny Henry in last year’s Othello, but its new take on Euripides’ tragedy arrived in Coventry trailing the kind of reviews that hinted at a must-see theatrical disaster.
In fact, it’s neither as bad nor as good as that. Perhaps it has been toned down since its opening week in Oxford, because neither I nor anyone else in Tuesday’s audience seemed to notice any cues for unintended laughter. Nor was there any sign of a particular expletive objected to by the London critics, which was presumably introduced during rehearsals since it does not appear in the published text of Tom Paulin’s new version.
But it’s surely metropolitan prejudice to object to the Chorus in a production from a Yorkshire-based company speaking with a Yorkshire accent. Who are they supposed to sound like – Stavros?
And I don’t see why the presence of an electric guitar in a 21st century production of a Greek tragedy has to be condemned out of hand. Actually the substitution of its screeching feedback for the off-stage screams of Medea’s murdered children was one of the production’s brighter inspirations.
The value of the other musical ingredients, with the Chorus giving itself a bluesy accompaniment with the aid of mouth organ, keyboards, tenor sax and lots of percussion, is more questionable. I preferred the musicality of its speech, flat vowels and all.
But worse than that is the cluttered staging. A clumsy cage-like structure which eventually turns out to be the chariot in which Medea will escape to Athens is parked so inconsiderately that at the beginning the Nurse, delivering her lengthy scene-setting speech, was completely invisible from where I was sitting.
Greek tragedy may be the root of all our theatre, but this production highlights the difficulty of re-presenting it in a contemporary context, and it doesn’t make a compelling case for it.
The story of a mother who exacts vengeance on an unfaithful husband by murdering her own children remains a benchmark of horror, though sadly similar cases are not unknown in modern suburbia. But the drama fires only fitfully in the confrontations of Nina Kristofferson’s Medea and Andrew Pollard’s Jason.
It’s the director Barrie Rutter, doubling the roles of King Creon and a messenger, who has the most compelling moments in a graphic account of the deaths of Jason’s prospective intended bride and father-in-law, poisoned by Medea.
Running time: One hour, 15 minutes (no interval). Until Saturday.