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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 19:05 GMT
Shaw shines as murderous Medea
Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw: Startling performance as spurned wife
By BBC News Online's Helen Bushby

A strong stomach is often needed to sit through Greek tragedy, and Deborah Warner's compelling version of Medea, starring Fiona Shaw, is no exception.

Shaw is terrifying as the woman whose fury at her unfaithful husband erupts like a volcano before a stunned audience.

Written in ancient Greece, the play tells the tale of Medea, whose beloved husband Jason is trading her in for a younger princess.

To add insult to injury, the princess's father, King Kreon, banishes Medea and her two sons from his land.

Shaw gives a moving yet repellent portrayal of the grief-stricken wife, whose hurt pride and love for Jason tear her in two.

Euripides' play was originally set in ancient Greece
The murderous Medea wreaks havoc. After poisoning her husband's betrothed and the king, she slays both her children to spite Jason, leaving him without family and future.

Shaw manages the fine balance of Medea's character with finesse, showing vulnerability and hatred in equal measure.

She even manages to squeeze in some unexpected humour, with her crushing comments about the inadequacies of her husband and her own self-deprecation.

Medea may be a woman scorned, but this does not lessen the agony she feels at murdering her children.

Warner's set provides a shocking backdrop for this hideous turn of events.


Shaw changes from her little black dress and high heels into a white anorak, drenching herself in the pool in the centre of the minimalist stage scattered with children's toys.

With oddly calming radio music playing in the background, a demented Shaw grabs her fleeing sons through the frosted glass at the back of the stage.

The shocking deed is done out of sight, but the vision of buckets of blood streaming down the spotlit glass is hard to forget.

Jonathan Cake is perfect as Jason, the handsome young husband (of golden fleece fame) whose protestations to Medea are belied by his cockiness.

Chillingly satisfying

He too strikes a balance between emotional frenzy and frustration with his wife, giving the audience glimpses of the passion that still exists between the couple.

Although it is unsettling at first to see the cast in contemporary dress, it works well with the modern script adapted by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael.

And the chilling, empty set with stained white brickwork and glass doors is cleverly uninviting, adding to the characters' lack of comfort.

There is nowhere soft to sit, and the only area which can give pleasure - the pool - ends up as a bath for the dead children as their mother washes the blood from their small limbs.

This version of Medea is chillingly satisfying to watch, as Fiona Shaw takes her character from anger and terrified indecision to murderous rage.

Shaw's reputation as one of theatre's finest actresses is well-deserved.

Medea is playing at Queen's Theatre in London from 30 January for 12 weeks.

See also:

05 Feb 98 | Despatches
Greeks unearth den of Euripides
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