You don’t need to know the story of Phaedra to recognise its origins as Greek mythology. Whilst these classic tragedies have their fans – often older, public school taught gentlemen – many theatregoers would rather gouge out their own eyes than sit through an adaptation of a 2,500-year-old play.
The glass box is imposing. The settings meticulously detailed in the naturalism. Yet underneath all this, it is difficult to fully engage
So, I should make it clear that Simon Stone’s version of Phaedra – now at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton – is not an adaptation but an ‘after’. Meaning it is sort of inspired, but only loosely, on the tale of the stepson-fucking, suicidal, Cretan princess.
It is a production that is easily accessible, relatable, stylish and modern. It is more resonant of House of Cards than the House of Crete. It looks stunning and is carried by some very strong performances.
So put those ironically Oedipal thoughts out of your mind.
A cacophony of noise
Janet McTeer’s Phaedra is Helen: the Environmental Secretary (or similar) for the opposition (assumed Labour) party. When we first meet her, she has an authoritarian, controlled presence about her. Though she may have been drawn to politics because of her beliefs, we sense she has now become simply political.
Her family is New Labour borne: built on beliefs and ruined by reality. The Iranian husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi): a diplomat with no diplomacy. The brattish teenage son Declan (Archie Barnes): the know-it-all whose mind is closed to all he doesn’t. The self-pitying, unhappily married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis): as low in self-awareness as she is high in self-pity.
They are a family who take pride in talking honestly and openly with each other, but they fail to listen. The brittleness of this family construct is clear from the start. As they ready themselves for their surprise visitor, they become a cacophony of noise; a heady mix of virtue signalling, thinly veiled insults, and loudly bellowed ‘cunts’.
The overlapping text is relentless. It’s like Caryl Churchill on speed. Kudos to the actors for carrying it off. It’s just a shame it completely excludes the audience.
Melting the ice
Things become a little quieter – just for a short while – with the arrival of their dinner guest, Sofiane (Assaad Bouab). He has come from Morocco – via Birmingham – and his presence radiates with the heat of his home, melting the ice that keeps the family in place. This is the first time they have all met Sofiane, whose now dead father, Achraf, was Helen’s ex-lover.
Seeing Sofiane’s resemblance to his father reawakens a passion in Helen. For Sofiane, seeing Helen through his adult eyes recalls the role she played in his own sexual awakening. Before you can say “mommy issues”, she has thrown herself at her ex-lover’s son and he has eagerly caught his childhood fantasy. Oddly we are told later that they don’t fuck.
So begins their brief but fiery sexual affair. (For those who don’t know the origins, the sexual dalliance Phaedra had was with her stepson. A little less icky here.)
Reclaiming the ick
Reclaiming the ick factor, Helen’s daughter is also infatuated by Sofiane. Having been 15 years married to a man who is sensitive, feminist, loving and adored by her family, it seems the idea of the heroic, on-the-run rebel that Sofiane represents is enough to make her moist.
With mother and daughter both hypnotised by lust and both spending days at a time (separately) in the bed of Sofiane’s Birmingham squat, you know things can’t end well.
And they don’t. Helen’s birthday dinner sees truths dished out faster than starters, dramatic exits acting as garnish and dessert replaced by strewn tableware.
Again, it’s all very rushed and not quite believable. But it’s great fun to watch.
A poisoned chalice
Everything takes place within a glass box. Contents of the box switch from the sumptuously detailed weekend home and the birthday restaurant, to the stylistic representations of a garden and the wintry hills of Morocco.
The box may be a metaphor of the warning given to people who live in glass houses. That would be relevant if a little obvious. But it may also be just to follow the current fashion for glass boxes. Or rain. Thought there’s no rain here.
I’m being facetious. But there are times this set seems to have become a poisoned chalice. It is emptied and filled with huge set pieces many times. And this doesn’t happen quickly. It rotates both within and between scenes. And it doesn’t rotate quietly. On balance, it is more distracting than it is engaging.
On top of this, there over 20 blackouts in Act One alone. Subtitles often fill a screen during these – showing the recorded words Ashraf left to his son – but they come at an uneven tempo and are often a beat or two out of time with the audio. It’s all too much stagecraft that gets in the way. And it sadly distances us from believing in the characters.
Difficult to be moved
Early previews had the show running at well over three hours. It now comes in at 2 hours ¾. Clearly stage management has been told to speed up, but it seems that the cast has also been given that note. The pace set in the first scene rarely lets up.
Dramatic moments are thrown out, rather than built to. Subtlety gives way to shouting. Important plot points aren’t given time to land or breathe. Blink and you’ll miss Helen calling the Home Office. Cough and you won’t realise she’s lost her job.
The final scene is given so many loose strings to tie and back stories to fill that text picks up yet more speed. As it races on, the subtitles struggle to keep up, causing a mismatch that highlights the problem further.
It may also be trying to hide gaps that don’t really make sense. Like why Hugo acts as Helen’s translator when he now hates her. How Helen seems surprised by the consequences of her actions. The combination of too many words and too little being said creates a haziness that makes it difficult to be moved by the tragedy of the denouement.
Quality theatre but…
This Phaedra is without doubt quality theatre. The performances are strong across the board and McAteer effortlessly owns the stage, gloriously towering over her surroundings even when breaking. The glass box is imposing. The settings meticulously detailed in the naturalism. Yet underneath all this, it is difficult to fully engage.
It has all the elements that should make for an extraordinary piece of theatre. But they don’t quite come together. There are plenty of things that make this worth seeing. There are plenty of things that make it memorable. It just isn’t the classic that it could have been. It isn’t another Yerma.