From Doctor Foster to Medea (Almeida)

It was my daughter, Maggie, who urged me to watch the BBC’s five-part series, Doctor Foster, scripted by playwright Mike Bartlett and starring Suranne Jones.  Besieged by an overly busy start to another academic year, I was reluctant to find the time, but all it took was one episode and I was completely hooked, watching a run of the episodes back-to-back.

Doctor Foster is a compelling story of one woman’s ‘perfect’ marriage and professional career as a GP tragically falling apart. Foster’s personal life unravels as she suspects her property-developing husband of an affair with a much younger woman, while her professional career is damaged by a litany of unfounded complaints (posted online by, it eventually turns out, an envious neighbour), and an allegation of malpractice by the abusive partner of one of her female patients, Carly, whom she tries to help. In turn, enlisting Carly’s assistance in establishing her husband’s guilt, Gemma sets revenge-styled wheels in motion, although not without also being pushed to the brink of suicidal despair. Between Barlett’s excellent scripting of the revenge motif and Jones’ deeply touching and disturbing portrait of a woman whose behaviour veers between the abject and the resilient, and at times borders on the psychotic, the drama achieves an epic feel to its subject matter. Where critics such as the Guardian’s Mark Lawson insightfully and astutely compared the series to the stage genre of Jacobean drama, given its mix of ‘lurid sex and violence with knockabout satire’ (, what also comes to mind is the classical, avenging figure of Medea. This is especially the case when the final episode involves a ‘knife-edge’ hint of infanticide as uncertainty hangs over whether or not Gemma has fatally harmed her son.

The recent TV airing of Dr Foster inevitably came up as a point of reference in discussion after Janelle Reinelt ( and I went to see the Almeida’s Medea – a new version by Rachel Cusk and directed by Rupert Goold. While both of us had been captivated by Bartlett’s revengeful Dr Foster, we left the Almeida production hugely disappointed by Cusk’s adaptation, both in terms of the writing and the performance.

Where Bartlett conceives his vengeance-seeking heroine with an eye to the emotional complexities of betrayal, divorce, and the warring struggles between abject disempowerment, disappointment and loss on the one hand, and calculated revenge on the other, Cusk depicts Medea (Kate Fleetwood) as a ‘miserablist’ wife/mother, wallowing in self-centred pity and anger over the break-up with her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger). Equally, in contrast to the Jacobean and classical registers of Bartlett that he blends to purposeful and chilling effect in his portrait of twentieth-first-century-woman-scorned, Cusk is unable to formally command her material that swings between the classical, the melodramatic and soap-opera-styled slanging matches between husband and wife. (Janelle and I felt that the cast and writer really ought to study Carl Churchill’s use of overlapping dialogue and understand how this technique can be used to stage and deliver angry tirades between disagreeing parties in a way that allows every important line or word to be heard.)

A chorus of five yuppie mothers, each carrying a plastic baby doll, frequent the executive, swish, pent-house apartment that has an upper level where Medea, a professional writer, retreats to work, and a ‘pit’ for characters to descend into the ‘hell’ of divorce-related animosity and despair. Poor physical and vocal work on the part of this chorus in combination with their litany of maternal discontents and hostility towards Medea, meant that there was no sense of a woman-centred, communal opposition to the marital set up. The one token note of resistance comes from Medea’s cleaner (from Brazil) and is all too sketchy and typecast (black, female domestic for white middle-class woman) to be politically effective.

Indeed, my list of complaints, which are in stark contrast to the critics who are raving about this production, could go on and on… But to cut to the chase, my overriding, overarching objection is a feminist one: to cast Medea in her contemporary guise as a ‘desperate housewife’ clinging on to her failed, heterosexual relationship belies the archetypal female transgressor who violently refuses a male-dominated order. Medea has been successfully reworked by feminist writers as a savage socio-political critique of patriarchal law – think of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s one-woman Medea that through the killing of the children calls for ‘a new woman [to]be born’. But Cusk kills off any larger, socio-political questioning of women’s maternal/marital lives by burying this transgressive dynamic within a personal lament for a lost husband/failed marriage.

I left the Almeida with a few vengeful thoughts of my own, but then comforted myself by thinking that since Barlett pulls his Dr Foster back from a fatal fallout and ends with a utopian, empowering gesture towards a single mother picking up the pieces of her personal and professional life, then there might be scope for a second series, perhaps?


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