Asking Rachel Cusk, an enthusiastic chronicler of domestic disharmony, to adapt Euripides’s Medea is a recipe for mixing modern misery with the tale of one of Ancient Greece’s least happy parenting experiences.
In this, the final flourish of the Islington Almeida’s “Greeks” season, Cusk, who chronicled her own marital unhappiness in a memoir, Aftermath, delivers a sharply written retake on Medea that focuses on the impact of parental strife and the consequences of Jason’s emotional desertion on her sons.
Kate Fleetwood, last seen cheerily kicking her heels on stage in the Old Vic’s hit High Society, flicks expertly here into the role of the forbidding, depressive anti-heroine, an outsider in Corinth’s high society, even before the plot boils up to its murderous conclusion.
In Rupert Goold’s production (he is Fleetwood’s real-life husband), she’s offset by a hilariously awful cast of self-righteous school-gate mums as a chorus, parroting psychobabble and vengeful clichés about her plight and their own fearful lives.
Justin Salinger is an artful, evasive Jason, justifying self-interest with statecraft and piously demanding that his ditched spouse should be “reasonable” after a hasty, convenient remarriage. Fleetwood’s angular features and stiletto-sharp delivery convey her implacable refusal to bow to an unjust fate.
The Greek season has been a grand success for the Almeida, with Oresteia already transferred to the West End. Many of the same virtues are on display here — a bold re-working of eternal unhappiness and irreconcilable drives for audiences with 21st-century preoccupations about family life and where it fits into broader social and political mores.
In Cusk’s account, patriarchal values cosh any attempt at resolution or alternative options. So Creon, a chilly Essex gangster (Andy de la Tour), is not only ruthless in the way Euripides portrayed but a spiteful woman-hater with an unhealthy daughter fixation. Unsurprisingly, there are tracts about the bad stuff men do to women, which sound like a bit like a UK Feminista campus induction course. That said, Medea does lend itself to a bitter reckoning on behalf of women rejected after childbearing. Jason’s self-righteous answerphone messages requiring privacy clauses contain some bitingly funny lines: “It’s not like you’re a big name, is it?” Goold’s direction keeps up the pace against the darkening blood-red background of Ian MacNeil’s minimalist set.
A boldly reworked ending has divided critics. Medea’s children commit suicide, which shares the blame squarely between their parents. There’s justice in that, but it removes the dreadful moment of catharsis, when what we fear might happen truly comes to pass. Like the refitted ending of Goold’s Oresteia, with its feminist critique of court justice, this tips into imposing the values of bourgeois urbanites. Cusk’s heroine is exercised at not getting her novel published, losing the house and visiting rights. It’s more Crouch End than Corinth.
The random cruelties of fate and arbitrary, often miserable, burdens of power get lighter, if poignant treatment from Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King at the Duke of York’s theatre. The relevant king, Philip V of Spain, is suffering from a bout of manic depression. We meet him attempting to fish from a goldfish bowl, surrounded by a brood of despairing and manipulative courtiers. Few actors convey the combination of menace and vulnerability as well as Rylance. Melody Grove as his patient second wife, Elizabeth Farnese, struggles to keep him on the throne and cure a diseased mind by bringing him a musical house pet in the great castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane). She thus lures one of the era’s great talents away from the emerging opera stages of Europe — and into a mutual dependency with the king.
Unavoidably, the shadow of Alan Bennett’s King George III hangs over the enterprise: the stage loves a bonkers monarch. But the star of Jerusalem and the BBC’s Wolf Hall has enough confidence to pull it off. The sumptuous setting — a gorgeous jewel box of two-tier stage with chandeliers doubling as starlight when the royal household decamps to the countryside — is a visual feast.
Claire van Kampen is the longstanding Mrs Rylance offstage (clearly, this is the season of uxorious theatrical couples working together) and the play’s musical director. Baroque interludes are mainly Handel — who inconveniently never met Farinelli. They are performed expertly by Iestyn Davies and Rupert Enticknap, counter-tenors these days, rather than the poor old castrati who entertained the European courts. Not everything is worth sacrificing for your art.
Finally, Photograph 51, at Wyndham’s Theatre starring Nicole Kidman (she of “pure theatrical Viagra”), revisits the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix, Rosalind Franklin, eclipsed in scientific celebration for years by Francis Crick (played by Edward Bennett) and James Watson (Will Attenborough). Photograph 51, written by the American playwright Anna Ziegler, draws our attention to the frosty Franklin’s contribution to the breakthrough.
As an actress, Kidman tends to downplay her intellectual heritage and styles herself as a glossy-posse screen maven. But she wanted to take this role in memory of the dedication of her biochemist father.
Here, she is a rebarbative, even narrow-minded researcher, who comes to life at the moment she stares at one cell image among countless others, and has her Eureka moment. It is hard to act this combination of wide-eyed discovery underpinned by years of slog and expertise, but Kidman carries it off with her particular luminosity.
Michael Grandage directs with assurance, and extra plaudits go to Christopher Oram, whose set conjures up the imposing nature of academic institutions in the 1950s (here King’s College, London). We are thrown back to a world not long escaped from war and chaos, in which academic women are still second-class citizens but quietly working on research that shape our world today. Admittedly, this is nowhere near the best recent play written about science. Characterisation is thin and there are too few surprises to rival, say, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. But a team effort of deft directing, committed star and careful attention to the nuances of its period make Photograph 51 a thoughtful addition to the genre.