Problems start with Tom Scutt's set. This consists of a large wall. On top is an enclosed room in which, though it looks much to small for the wedding of a king's daughter, said wedding and one or two other off-stage events take place. In front of this room is a landing. A flight of stairs brings us down into Medea's large open-plan basement and behind that is a rather oddly located forest. The largest issue with all this is it completely fails to create any sense of entrapment. It feels as if anybody could escape in pretty much any direction whenever they wanted to. Cracknell ensures that her performers use the stairs and the landing but again they feel like a burden rather than an element adding power to the performances. Likewise that enclosed room I mentioned. Cracknell appears in two minds as to whether she wants to show us or not show us events which the chorus describe. We see some but not others – on the whole she would have been much better off showing us none of it.
Then there's Lucy Guerin's choreography, performed by the thirteen strong chorus and, in one of the least well judged moments, Clemmie Sveaas's Kreusa. I seem to recall that the chrous did dance in classical Greek tragedy and on some level this feels like it's trying to play with that tradition in the same way the pediment of the wall began to remind me of the remains of classical theatres. But it just doesn't come off. The movement is baffling rather than menacing or moving and like the set holds up the drama rather than propelling it onwards.
But the biggest issue lies in the performances of the principals, and the consistent folly of their behavior, and it starts from the central figure – Helen McCrory's Medea. She is so evidently unhinged that I found it very difficult to believe that anybody would at any point be convinced by her remarks. Thus Martin Turner's Kreon seems a fool in agreeing to give her a day's grace, Danny Sapani's Jason seems a fool in thinking that she has changed her tune, Clemmie Sveaas's Kreusa a fool in accepting any gift she may send. Now all these things might I think have worked if the production had created a different impression of the three characters in question. Thus if any of the three were played as more certain people secure in their own power. But they aren't. It might also have worked if I'd believed McCrory possessed a mesmerising power to persuade against others better judgement, but I didn't. My other issue with McCrory's performance is that it all seemed to take place at much the same level. This coupled with the unhinged quality meant that she both lacked real menace and that I never really believed her when she did question her resolve to kill the children. That event when it finally came felt too long delayed and left me unmoved. The production finds some effective interplay between Jason and Medea particularly the kiss when I did briefly believe that the two had had a passionate relationship – but this isn't sufficiently sustained through the rest of their performances even though in the text it's a key trigger of all the events we're witnessing. Of the other principals there's nothing particularly wrong with their performances, but nobody really caught fire and made me care or believe.
As with the National's last foray into this repertoire (an equally unsuccessful Antigone) a large Greek chorus is provided. As there I'm not convinced that dividing the lines between such a large number of people gives it the necessary intensity. The performers do what they're asked to do perfectly solidly but it's another element that lacks punch.
There were clearly some people in the audience (judging by the scattered individuals standing to applaud at curtain call) who were far more impressed than me by the evening. For me it was another in what has been a little run of unusually weak shows at the National.