Helen McCrory Crackles With Intensity and Rage in National Theatre Live' s Medea

Helen McCrory in Medea
Helen McCrory in Medea
Photo by Jason Bell

The Set-up: On the surface, Medea, the woman who kills her children in order to punish her husband who has abandoned them all, seems impossible to understand. It seems equally impossible to sympathize with her. Helen McCrory's gut-wrenching performance in the National Theatre production of Medea, filmed live in September and currently in a limited run of theatrical broadcasts, allows audiences to do both.

Carrie Cracknell directs Ben Power's new version of Euripides' tragedy. Physically the production is spare. The characters are in modern dress; the stage has just a few pieces of dilapidated furniture, a sofa, a table. Just behind the family living room stands a shadowy woods. Above the woods, as if sitting on top of them, is the ballroom where Medea's husband Jason is marrying his new bride.

A group of women act as the Greek chorus; they're guests at the wedding in one scene, ghostly apparitions in another.

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The Execution:

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McCrory is excellent as the broken-hearted, murderous Medea. She literally vibrates with rage and confusion. Her grief boils into anger; that anger devolves into insanity. When Medea readies her dagger to kill her children, we understand that she believes she has no other choice. (In her mind, once cast out by their father, the unprotected boys are destined to be murdered. Why let them suffer death at a less loving hand than her own, she asks.)

For the most part, Danny Sapani as Jason matches McCrory's intensity in the first half of the show but he's eventually outpaced by her grief and anger. By the time Jason discovers his children are dead, Sapani has noticeably faded. And although he's the object of her hatred, his presence is eventually unimportant as McCrory sweeps across the stage in full rant.

Lucy Guerin's choreography ranges from off-putting to distracting. Jason's young bride seems almost vulgar as she dances with her new husband at their wedding. The chorus starts off twitching to show Medea's growing desperation. That twitching eventually develops into jerky, spastic shudders.

The Verdict: McCrory is superb. Her Medea is more than just a ball of anger and spite. She's a wronged and wounded woman who sees revenge, however extreme, as the only way of regaining the control over her life that she had so completely turned over to her husband. Jason might abandoned her and her children, but she alone will decide her fate.

Medea screens at 12:30 p.m. October 11. Sundance Cinemas Houston, 510 Texas. For information, visit ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk. $22.

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