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Unhappy families: Kate Fleetwood as Medea and Justin Salinger as Jason (photo: Marc Brenner)

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.

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