We are living in an age of astonishing female actors. Of course, the great pity is that audiences rarely have the chance to see any of those over 60, though Eileen Atkins is – hurrah – appearing at Stratford this autumn. Meanwhile, younger generations are in mighty form this week.
Helen McCrory is at the peak of her power. She is a marvelous Medea. When she first enters in combat trousers, scrubbing at her teeth as if they were enemies, her voice is deep and guttural. Each syllable seems to have been wrenched from her insides. She goes up a register and tightens her delivery once she has fixed on her terrible plan: to revenge her husband by killing her children. It is as if she is relieved to have reached the moment of greatest desperation.
McCrory has always been a gracefully physical actor, whether sauntering in white lace towards the samovar in Uncle Vanya or jagged with boredom in Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes. She is fluent in different kinds of movement here, too: wild as she squats to haul things up from an underworld source, slinky and knowing as she meets her ex-husband in a surprising kiss, defiant as she squares up to the world with her plans. Yet it is the range of her voice that is so extraordinary, and that lets you into the centre of her despair. There is, after all, no surer symptom of depression than vocal flatness.
McCrory manages to suggest that her murders are a way of hurting herself. Yet she does not go all the way down this fashionable path. She may be a victim, but she is also a shaman. Elsewhere, Carrie Cracknell’s production quakes with female rage and powerlessness. Tom Scutt’s revealing design sets a fairytale wild wood, bristling with twisted branches, at the back of the stage. A chorus in Horrocks frocks is lined up above the action like bridesmaids. As these women question Medea’s account of herself, they begin to twitch and to jerk like mannequins moved by an unseen hand. This is rather too modishly influenced by the dance of Pina Bausch, yet it adds one more tremor of malaise. When Medea sends her husband’s new wife a dress drenched in poison, the young woman appears behind a transparent screen performing a dance of death, as if trying to pull herself out of her own lethal skin.
Ben Power’s new version is clenched and forceful. It does not have the brave beauty of Robin Robertson’s 2008 translation, in which the gods “turn the bright air black”. It does have power: its short lines are like splinters.