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Medea review: Sophie Okonedo is mesmerising as the scorned woman hellbent on revenge

Devastating Greek tragedy leaves you in need of a stiff drink.

By Simon Button

Sophie Okonedo in Medea (Image: Manuel Harlan)
Sophie Okonedo in Medea (Image: Manuel Harlan)

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. It has seldom been dished up to such bone-chilling effect as it is in Dominic Cooke’s new production of Medea. 

The last 20 mins of this reimagined Greek tragedy are truly terrifying, all the more so for having Sophie Okonedo emerge from an unseen room under the stage after she’s committed the most unimaginably horrific of murders. 

Drenched by the rain (there are a lot of downpours on London stages nowadays), she has blood on her hands. She’s like Carrie at the prom, only the blood hasn’t been dumped on her. And it isn’t her own.

Okonedo’s performance as the scorned woman for whom hell hath no fury is the stuff of which theatrical legends are made. Jilted by her husband and facing banishment, she’s at the mercy of men who don’t know who they’re messing with. 

Sophie Okonedo in Medea (Image: Johan Persson)
Sophie Okonedo in Medea (Image: Johan Persson)

Howling “Let me die” from that underground lair at the start of the play, she soon realises she’d be satisfied more if others died instead. Thus she plots and schemes under the increasingly scared eyes of the Greek chorus of women around her. They sit in the audience for most of the run time (90 minutes, no interval), drawing us further into the gathering storm.

Okonedo doesn’t for one second court sympathy, not even when she’s joyous around Medea’s two sons. And when she says “No-one has ever injured me without suffering more than I have” it sends shivers down the spine. 

“You simply cannot take your eyes off her.”

It’s not a one-note performance, though. She humanises Medea’s hatred, mining conflicting emotions before that hatred finally consumes her. I’ve never seen her on stage before, only on screen, but she’s one of our most revered theatre performers and now I know why. You simply cannot take your eyes off her.

The Greek tragedy was penned by Euripides and dates back to 431 BC. Writer Robinson Jeffers gives it a non-specific timeframe, although the setting is still Corinth – with designer Vicki Mortimer employing just a bit of tiled flooring to echo the starkness of the story.

Performed in the round at the wondrous new @sohoplace theatre, it’s a mesmerisingly intimate production. Even from the cheap-ish seats on the third level you can see the sweat and the spit.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels in Medea (Image: Johan Persson)
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels in Medea (Image: Johan Persson)

As all the males in the story, Ben Daniels gives a masterclass in versatility. Circling Medea in slow-motion, he’s like a vulture eyeing up his prey as he dons shirts and coats for each character. He too winds up with blood on his hands, with his devastation over who that blood belongs to powerfully portrayed. 

A brilliant Marion Bailey completes the core cast as the Nurse left cowering in the rain, as shattered by the denouement as we in the audience are. 

The theatre bar is open after the show, which is just as well. You’ll need a good stiff drink to steady your nerves before heading home.

Rating: 5/5

Medea is @sohoplace, London, until 22 April. Get tickets here