Medea review: Sophie Okonedo has a moving dignity in this triumphant production

Dominic Cooke’s subtle staging of this Greek myth makes Medea’s actions seem just about understandable

Alice Saville
Monday 20 February 2023 19:32 GMT
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels in Medea
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels in Medea (Johan Persson)

In Greece, the spurned outsider Medea tells us, women are good for nothing except birthing children – so she’s chosen evil instead. Dominic Cooke’s subtle, brilliant staging of the Euripides tragedy takes one of the most deplorable creatures to spring from the teeming forest of monsters in ancient myth, and, without taming her, makes her feel entirely human.

Sophie Okonedo plays Medea with a moving dignity that nearly masks her deep inner pain. First, there is the damage caused by leaving behind her native country, where her healing powers are celebrated, in favour of one where she’s feared as a sorceress. Then the compounding injury of being left for a golden-haired princess, abandoned by the husband she’d given up everything for. Her revenge is meticulously project-managed to cause maximum harm: she’s lost her conscience, along with everything else.

Over at the National Theatre, another Euripides play is being enjoyably dismantled by Simon Stone, its parts reconstituted into a modern drama about middle-class hypocrisy and post-colonial struggles, framed in a slick glass box. Cooke’s approach is entirely different. He uses Robinson Jeffers’ luminous 1946 translation, one that strikes a perfect balance between poetry and clarity, and rescues it from the threat of pretentiousness by bringing out every ounce of humour in its lines.

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