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Medea, Watford Palace Theatre

Euripides, in a new version by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Mike Bartlett

Pros: Bartlett seldom puts a foot wrong, and his adaptation of Medea is no exception.

Cons: Perhaps overly and unnecessarily keen to keep some of the aspects of the classic tragedy format intact.

Our Verdict: A brilliant introduction to a timeless classic, with an incredibly strong central performance from Rachael Stirling.

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan for The Guardian

Mike Bartlett has, to be honest, had a pretty awesome few years. He currently seems to be the man with the golden touch. This production of Medea, adapted and directed by Bartlett and produced by Headlong, the theatre company he collaborated with for Earthquakes in London, is no exception to the rule. His work up to this date has consisted of vast amounts of exciting new writing, so straying into a modern day adaptation of a Greek tragedy is a risky business. Does he succeed? Oh yes.

I’m willing to place my bets that not everyone will be happy with this adaptation. Bartlett is exciting to me for exactly the reason that some people might hate his script; he strives to make his speech as close to realistic dialogue as possible, whilst at the same time endowing the cast with the wit and verbal dexterity that we all wish we had. He gives his characters the ability to have those pithy debates we imagine in our head long after the actual conversation has finished. Basically, I wish I could talk like a Mike Bartlett character, yet I still see in his dialogue the patterns and rhythms of real speech. It’s a great skill and has resulted in an engaging, lively version of the Euripides original.

His play definitely isn’t perfect. He’s tried to keep elements of the original Greek tragedy – some work, some definitely don’t. He’s tried to depict the chorus in a single character, and has a Workman who appears and observes much of the action, yet doesn’t interact a great deal. I can’t say I’d have missed him if he wasn’t there, and to a modern audience he just seems a little creepy! I also took objection to the lighting. Johanna Town is a talented lighting designer whose work I’ve seen and admired in previous shows, but in this play it just seemed lazy. So much more could have been done to highlight the fairly simple spaces the set included. That was a real shame.

A remarkably simple yet effective set sees giant photos of a terrace house roll to reveal or conceal the action within the house itself. The sound design was also incredibly effective and skillfully enhanced the play. The sequences I enjoyed most where the silent episodes that gave us far more insight into the mind of Medea. A terrifying interaction between Medea, her son and a pot of boiling vegetables plays out to David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane for example. Coupled with her regular glances into the audience, which leave you feeling like she’s taking note of your face for her future reference, Medea is a terrifying force.

Rachael Stirling does a wonderful job as Medea. Everything from her fiery hair and her disconcerting red eye makeup, to the very way her body seems angulated and tense throughout the whole show tell you from the get go that this is a woman on the edge. Anything could go wrong – and it does. But when that happens and Medea reaches the end of her story you somehow still like her, and all the manipulative behaviour is forgotten. Her actions may be awful, but what we see is a previously high-flying intelligent woman discarded and depressed. You pity rather than despise her, which is just how it should be.

Part of the reason that Medea still resonates is that the issues at its core haven’t gone anywhere. We still have more men in our parliament. We still have far more men on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. Women are still massively underrepresented in the media representation of scientists and scholars, even if they are doing well in actual laboratories and libraries. Women still age and are discarded by institutions as seemingly liberal as the BBC. I could play this game all day, but I think instead I’ll leave it to Medea herself: ‘Nobody likes clever women – men are intimidated, women get bitchy’. I wish things had changed.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Medea runs at the Watford Palace Theatre until 27th October 2012, before continuing its UK Tour.
Watford Palace Box Office: 01923 225671 or see details of the tour online at

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