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Medea at @sohoplace review: a blazing Sophie Okonedo makes this spartan production a must-see

Sophie Okonedo with Ben Daniels  (Johan Persson)
Sophie Okonedo with Ben Daniels (Johan Persson)

It’s not your typical West End entertainment but this staging of Euripides’ Greek tragedy grips with a cold, bleak force. Sophie Okonedo is riveting in her first stage role for four years, dredging up vast reserves of emotion to play Medea, a woman who gave up everything for Jason, the hero she loved, and for their two young sons. And who does the unthinkable when he leaves her for the younger, more politically advantageous daughter of King Creon.

Okonedo has an excellent foil in her old friend Ben Daniels, who circles the almost-bare stage in menacing slow motion before stepping in to play Jason and all the other male parts. There’s something wonderful about finding Dominic Cooke’s uncompromising, brutally human 90-minute production amid the video-spattered architectural kaleidoscope of the redeveloped Tottenham Court Road.

In an era when sexed-up reworkings are de rigueur, Cooke opts for an admirably simple 1946 adaptation by American poet Robinson Jeffers. The men and the all-female chorus refer to Medea, wrongly, as a creature of stone. She refers to the men, rightly, as dogs, who will bite until their teeth are broken.

She’s an outsider even before she becomes an outcast, regarded as a “barbarian” and a “witch” by the “reasonable and civilized elite” of Colchis that we, the audience, represent.

At first, we only hear her, from the staircase curving up into Vicki Mortimer’s tiled courtyard set, as if she’s already in exile, or in the grave. When she appears, she is a vision of grief. Deep lines of anguish and hurt rake Okonedo’s face, but her voice is determined. “I will show you my naked heart,” she promises.

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

The women sympathise with her, Creon threatens and patronises her, and Jason mansplains that he is acting in their sons’ interest: the text doesn’t really need updating, does it? Medea swaps her peasanty blouse and skirt for a funereal black dress when she stops pleading and starts plotting revenge. As she watches Jason horsing around with their boys, you can actually see her stricken chagrin harden into something more awful.

Daniels has a more playful time of it, shrugging jackets on and off as he switches roles. He juxtaposes an adamantine Creon and a chilling Jason with a startlingly camp turn as the Athenian king Aegeus. It works, as do the inoffensively modern costumes and the simple set. The production sits sweetly in this in-the-round venue inspired by the great theatre at Epidaurus (a town namechecked in the play). I’m not sure we need the burst of twangly soft rock at the start, though, or the equally clichéd onstage downpour at the end.

Above all, it’s great to see Okonedo back on the London stage. She must spend her periods away charging her batteries in order to release another skinless, vivid, wrenching performance. Her last theatre role, as Cleopatra at the National in 2018/19, won her the Evening Standard’s Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, and this blazing Medea surely propels her onto this year’s shortlist.

@sohoplace, to April 22, sohoplace.org