Phaedra (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: February 10, 2023 in Theatre
Photo: Johan Persson

Writer and director: Simon Stone


There is nothing like a Greek tragedy to add misery to a dark February evening, but not to worry, because Simon Stone’s modern reimagining of The Phaedra myth is nothing like a Greek tragedy, at least not for more than three-quarters of its duration.

in this version, the Phaedra figure is Helen, a high-flying politician, who juggles a shadow ministerial job with tending for her constituents and jointly heading a bickering dysfunctional family. Power-dressed to the hilt, Janet McTeer’s Helen has the air of a woman who is in complete control, at least until a new arrival exposes her vulnerability, leading to her downfall. Paul Chahidi makes excellent use of the comic potential in Hugo, Helen’s unexciting husband, who is used to playing second fiddle, but finds himself increasingly exasperated. 

Stone directs the opening scene, a family gathering, as if he is telling the audience that the chit-chat and the sub-plots are inconsequential, as indeed they turn out to be. The dialogue is rushed through at breakneck speed, making some of it inaudible, but at least it compresses the production’s running time to a bearable 160 minutes (including interval). The play’s real substance emerges in scene two with the arrival of Sofiane, the son of Helen’s now dead Moroccan lover from the 1980s. Assaad Bouab gives him a mysterious, magnetic appeal, which helps to explain why, instantly, Helen becomes infatuated with him. He seduces her (or vice versa) and he then turns his attention to Helen’s unhappily married daughter, Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), making her pregnant.

McTeer and Bouab shine brightly, but neither can eclipse the star quality of Chloe Lamford’s extraordinary set designs, which scream out “people in glass houses…”. The characters, encased in a Lyttelton stage-filling revolving glass box, then throw proverbial stones at each other and at society’s codes of morality. Inside the box, Scandinavian style interiors suggest cold habitats in which lust outranks love and power is all. Irritatingly, the designs reinforce the “fourth wall”, but it constantly intrigues and grabs the imagination.

Throughout the first act, Stone adds deft comic touches to the drama, as if to highlight the ridiculousness of the characters’ behaviour. The second act begins with a hilarious scene of family disintegration in a chic restaurant and this is more reminiscent of early Ayckbourn than of any tragedy, Greek or otherwise. It is a bold move to insert a comedy segment as the prelude to a dramatic climax and, even though the scenes do not blend together seamlessly, the effect is disarming. Bold too is the climax itself in which, lit from the rear, the actors appear only as enlarged silhouettes on the glass.

In all of this, Stone is exploring playfully the clashes between modern sophisticated lifestyles and primitive human urges. Opportunities to expand on the pressures placed specifically on women in modern professional life and on the different attitudes towards them and their male counterparts are largely passed over. The writer seems less concerned with making serious social points than with creating a piece of stimulating and original entertainment.

This Phaedra is inconsistent, over-gimmicky and occasionally baffling. However, its plus points outnumber its flaws and it achieves a strange and seductive quality that imprints itself on the mind.

Performance date: 9 February 2023

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