Monday, September 29, 2014

Tragic Muse: Medea and A Streetcar Named Desire

Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory in Medea, at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The great Greek tragedies are as hard and piercing as flint, and they lead us into a terrible darkness. The best productions, like Carrie Cracknell’s of Euripides’s Medea at the National Theatre (featured a few weeks ago in the NT Live HD series), leave us feeling altered. Euripides was a master ironist and a master of language; he was also a brilliant psychologist, and never more so than in Medea, a witheringly complex and precise portrait of a woman who, cut to the bone by her husband Jason’s betrayal – he abandons her and their young sons to marry Glauce, the princess of Corinth – decides that the only way to get revenge is first to poison the bride and then murder her own boys. (She convinces herself that she’s somehow protecting the children by keeping them safe from their enemies.) Euripides doesn’t make it easy for his audience: he refuses to portray Medea as mad – to give us a way of understanding her behavior that distances her from us. The chorus of Corinthian women who interact only with her sympathizes with her anger, though it terrifies them. Her logic, ghastly as it is, is no less reasonable than Jason’s when he protests that she’s the problem, that her temper has made her her own worst enemy, and explains that marrying into the royal family will somehow benefit her and their sons.

Ben Power’s translation is faithful to the exquisite sparseness of Euripides’s verse; only occasionally does it succumb to contemporariness. (When Medea claims, “I chose to take back my life,” the line sounds like pop-psych cant, and she immediately contradicts its sentiment when she protests, “He left me. I’m already nothing.”) The production is beautifully staged and impeccably performed – by Danny Sapani as Jason, by Dominic Rowan as Aegeus (Medea’s friend, who promises her shelter in Athens without realizing what she will need shelter for), by Michaela Cowl as the Nurse (who provides the background of the story in the opening speech, a marvelously controlled piece of dramatic oratory). And especially by Helen McCrory, whose portrayal of Medea would be a highlight of any theatrical season. McCrory has been showing up in supporting roles in movies for years now, and though she has a distinctive voice, she’s such a fine character actress that most moviegoers have probably admired her in one film after another without realizing they’ve seen her before. She played Mme. Méliès in Hugo and she was the condescending minister in Skyfall who takes down Judi Dench’s M for her outmoded view of spies in post-Cold War England moments before one of the agents she refuses to believe in sends in his minions to terrorize the government. When McCrory first appears in Medea, she’s wearing guerilla pants and a t-shirt, and there’s a warrior look about her – the look of a terrorist. But those amazing cheekbones make her look aristocratic as well as fierce, and tremulousness battles with ferocity in her cracked, craggy voice. She’s astonishing in scene after scene. When her Medea told herself to overcome her softness and take her revenge, i.e., wipe out her children’s lives, I scribbled in my notes, “This is her best moment.” As it turns out, though, she has an even finer one: when, her dress soaked with blood, she drags their bodies downstage in sleeping bags and Jason screams at her, “But they were your boys!” and she answers, weeping, “And I grieve for them.” (McCrory’s performance made me want to revisit the greatest Medea moment in movies, when Anjelica Huston’s Lilly kills her son, played by John Cusack, at the end of The Grifters and moans for her loss.)

Cracknell puts Glauce on stage, as a dancer; above the main action of the play we see her donning her bridal veil and engaging in a seductive wedding-night pas de deux with Jason. Lucy Guerin’s expressionistic choreography is the single element (besides the thundering music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp) that feels overstated, though the ideas come through; we could certainly live without Glauce’s death dance, which makes her look like a flapping marionette. Cracknell’s compositions are far more effective. At the end, Medea lifts the bagged bodies as she walks back upstage, struggling under their weight, and her shadow elongates behind her as she disappears into a boiling mist. The final image, coming in the wake of tragedy so immense you have to bow to it, makes us tremble.

Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois and Ben Foster as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire  (Photo: Alastair Muir)

I only made it to intermission of the next NT Live broadcast, the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche. Benedict Andrews rendered it in modern dress, which doesn’t make sense: a twenty-first-century Blanche would hardly worry about whether letting her suitor, Mitch, get beyond first base would eliminate him as a marital candidate. But that decision is less a problem than the scrappy staging (which is exacerbated for the movie audience by the slowly spinning revolve; it must have been a nightmare to try to shoot this thing), the eye-offending set (by Magda Willi), the deafening scene-shift music, and the aimless performances. Anderson would seem to be a good choice for this role, but her deep-fried southern accent is laid on with a trowel and she never varies her vocal attack; she strains her voice so much that it’s a wonder she doesn’t lose it by the end of every performance. But she and Vanessa Kirby as Stella (who makes exactly no impression in the part) are practically the only actors on the stage who bothered with southern accents. From their voices, I would have placed Mitch (Corey Johnson) in Brooklyn and Ben Foster (Stanley) in Buffalo. I’ve never seen a more hopeless Stanley; it’s as if Andrews cast the pizza delivery boy when he stopped in one day during rehearsal. The left-wing Young Vic likes to make a virtue of throwing off what we unenlightened theatregoers think of as the necessary accessories of a professional production, but it’s hard to believe in deglamorizing as a political principle when what’s up on the stage is so dreadful and so visually ugly. (The Young Vice version of Ibsen’s Public Enemy, which I saw a year and a half ago, looked like it had been designed by the arts and crafts counselor at a summer camp.) If this theatre doesn’t believe in spending money on sets, why didn’t it just present Streetcar with a few sticks of furniture and put the cast in rehearsal clothes, like the actors in Vanya on 42nd Street? And is it too bourgeois to suggest that actors need direction?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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