Our first sight of Helen McCrory is of her brushing her teeth, coming out of a rather downmarket alcove with a sink dressed in khaki warrior trousers and a skinny top. The teeth-brushing is one of many realist details in this confused production which don't amount to very much.
While McCrory is a top-notch performer and is never less than watchable, she and the other actors are given not enough space to dominate the Olivier stage. This is one of quite a few productions I have seen at the National Theatre where the director and designer have got together to devise a set which is far too intrusive and leaves little space for the cast to develop their interpretation of the play. Tom Scutt's design simply has too much going on, with its overhead glassed-in platform and its huge carpeted empty space downstage, and its upstage forested area. Like Carrie Cracknell's direction, it tries to do too many things at once. In the process, the essential simplicity of the story about a mother murdering her children gets lost.
There are various ways of playing Greek tragedy. Peter Hall did it in stylised fashion, with the actors wearing masks. My all-time favourite was a production of The Bacchae with Alan Cumming as Dionysus, hanging upside down and bare-arsed before greeting the audience with the immortal line 'I'm back!' Cumming set up a feeling of intimacy and complicity with the audience, only to reveal his character was a very disturbed psychopath.
This production, by contrast, never builds the bridge with the audience that I think Greek tragedy needs. The chorus don't communicate much with the audience at all, instead performing mime and dance routines to each other. Nor does the nurse (Michaela Coel), the one character who should be tearing down barriers to the audience with her opening and closing speeches, really manage to do so.
I felt quite detached from this drama, which failed to move me in the way it should. I have much more powerful memories of the last production of Medea I saw, with the great Diana Rigg in the title role. That was a much simpler production, which concentrated on the essentials.
Cracknell's version is a new one by Ben Power, the National's chief rewrite man, and it is banal. Not everyone can turn Greek tragedy into poetry like Ted Hughes or Tony Harrison, but perhaps those with no poetic talent should leave the task to those who have. It generates quite a bit of audience tittering, which is never a good sign.
My feeling about this production is that it doesn't trust the text or the audience enough. The audience should not need to experience loud off-stage screams or see a Medea drenched in blood; sometimes these things are much more powerful if they are just hinted at, or left to the imagination.
McCrory and the rest of the cast do their best, but I feel they are always at the mercy of the stage design's pre-determined concept, with little freedom to act. Sometimes the big Olivier stage is at its most effective when it is empty. And less is quite often more.