I am not the only one put off by Medea; Aristotle felt aspects of Euripides' bitter tragedy were "revolting." So I am in good company. Then again, so is Diana Rigg in the production at the Longacre Theater. Supporting her is a superlative cast, a smashing set, a colloquial translation, and an inspired director. Yet all this would have been insignificant without the actress' enormous elegance and force.
Despite its longevity, Medea is little more than a revenge drama with insubstantial victims, a monstrous protagonist, and speeches that seem to have been chipped in capital letters on black marble. Out of love for her husband, Jason (Tim Oliver Woodward), Medea has stolen the Golden Fleece from her father, murdered her brother, fled with Jason to Corinth and given him two sons. He responds to her deeds with smug ingratitude. In a matter of days he plans to take a younger and more prestigious bride, the princess Glauce.
Aware of Medea's barbarous history, King Creon (John Turner) orders her into exile: "I am afraid of you; no need to wrap the face in phrases." The wronged woman greets this news with an air of resignation. She asks only for a small delay, in order to let her little boys deliver a robe and crown to the royal house. Jason, surprised and relieved, welcomes this conciliatory gesture. His acceptance turns out to be a death warrant for Glauce and Creon: The gifts are saturated with poison. Once Medea learns of her enemies' demise, she finishes the job by slaughtering her own sons and condemning Jason to a life of perpetual anguish.
The play has neither subtlety, catharsis nor redemption. Why has it survived for more than two millennia? In part, because this is the most accessible of Euripides' works; in part, because it is one of the great showpieces for an over-the-top actress. Hence the celebrated productions starring Judith Anderson and, more recently, Zoe Caldwell. Rigg's nuanced performance is wiser than her predecessors.' Alternately as crisp and witty as an Evelyn Waugh hostess, or as malevolent as a black widow spider, she rarely raises her voice until the blood-soaked ending. The declaration, "I am adept at all that is hidden," is quite enough to freeze the marrow.
Alistair Elliot's translation trips over an occasional anachronism. When Medea reminds Jason of past favors, for example, she grumbles, "And now you drop me . . . but in the age-old phrase, let's try to be friends." The lines seem less suggestive of ancient Greece than of Neil Simon's Manhattan. Otherwise, the text honors the playwright without making him a lifeless monument. The same holds true for the Chorus. The customary group of 15 has been pared down to three (Jane Loretta Lowe, Judith Paris, Nuala Willis), and over the course of an intermissionless hour and a half their contralto chants become as haunting as any Wagnerian choir.
The men surrounding Medea are usually upstaged by the powerhouse lead. Not here. Guided by director Jonathan Kent, Jason and Creon are as individual as fingerprints. The Messenger bearing news of the offstage atrocities (Dan Mullane) is equally memorable. There is one more impressive character in this production: the set. Just as Paul Brown's costumes eschew the customary Grecian robes for a rough-hewn modernity, so Peter J. Davison discards the easy references to ancient Greece: columns, friezes, statuary, etc. In their place he has constructed a wall of steel plates, covered with rust and rivets. To bang them with a fist is to set up a rumble even moodier than Jonathan Dove's incidental music. In the final scene, when Medea changes her flowing red dress for a white one stained with her children's lifeblood, those plates are jerked loose from their moorings and clang against each other with a huge, doom-laden sound recalling the wrath of Zeus. The moment underlines Medea's malignity and lends new significance to the term Greek Revival.
George Bernard Shaw used to despair of finding the correct production of Medea--and the right actress to play the title role. He warned a producer that the star "mustn't blither; there must be no holes in her. . . . Medea is a big thing that breaks through all mere prudences." Rigg is that big thing, and GBS should be living at this hour.