• Mar 06,2023
  • In Review
  • By Abundant Art

Review: Phaedra-a new play by Simon Stone after Euripides, Seneca and Racine-National Theatre until 8 April

Simon Stone catapults his tragic, eponymous protagonist some two and a half millennia forward to the open plan home of a socially liberal middle class London family. Dads in expensive lycra, expensive bottles of red wine, and a wife’s frustration at her husband’s inability to call her anything but ‘babe’ furnish the set at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton, and the daily lives of Stone’s characters. Nevertheless, his take on Euripides’s Hippolytus is all Greek to me.

Phaedra is a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet named Helen (Janet McTeer). Her chaotic past visits her in the form of Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), the son of her former lover, who had died several decades previous while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol in his native Morocco. The ending of Helen’s heady youth therefore coincided with that of her beloved Achraf. By the time we meet her she has long settled down with Hugo (Paul Chahidi), a polyglottal diplomat. Helen begins an ardent affair with Sofiane, in equal measures physical and romantic, before Sofiane forsakes her for her daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), who is also married. Voice recordings which Achraf had left for Sofiane intersperse the narrative. (Believe it or not, I haven’t actually spoiled much.)

As did Seneca (1st century CE) and Racine (1677) in their adaptations of Euripides, Stone recentres the play on Phaedra, who is cursed by Aphrodite to love her stepson, rather than its object, Hippolytus. McTeer’s Helen is a captivating yet unlikeable hedonist. She leaves it unclear as to whether Helen’s destructive behaviour is a twofold demonstration of self-service and self-sabotage, or a pseudo-religious act of dedication to Achraf, whose death doubles as a secular deification. Bouab portrays Sofiane as the only presence of sincerity in modernity’s scramble, but other than his need to flee Morocco for political reasons, Stone does not flesh him out enough to know why he does what he does. The only suggestions are that he is either driven purely by desire or that he, like Helen, has deified his father, and – viewing Achraf’s voice recordings as a scripture of sorts – wishes to avenge him. Davis’s Isolde is borderline archetypical of a wealthy Londoner hot on social justice issues: her involvement with Sofiane mocks the hypocritical imperfection of the ‘woke’ stereotype instead of affording grace to a complex person.

Ironically, Stone’s development of the characters outside the love triangle is one of Phaedra’s highlights. Chahidi’s Hugo is charmingly inept, yet simultaneously the most charismatic and funny person on stage. His disappointment at his physique in running tights is so quotidian yet also poignant.  The affection between Isolde’s younger brother, Declan (Archie Barnes), and her husband, Eric (John MacMillan), is fantastically engineered. When Declan hears of their troubles, he hilariously rushes to be a shoulder for Eric to cry on. In tandem with Chahidi, the men’s fraternity strikes a pose of (mostly) positive masculinity that lends depth to the drama. Akiya Henry’s Omolara, another shadow cabinet member and a reimagining of the Greek chorus, reacts with appropriate shock to the tales from Helen’s affair. As a British-Nigerian and practising Christian, Omolara is both an outsider in Britain and Phaedra’s only representative of the Christian morality by which Middle England judges its metropolitan political class, but which that class rarely lives according to.

Phaedra’s greatest strengths and most glaring flaws lie in the fact that Stone has left its tragedy intact. He does not bring the Greek gods to our secular times, but without a higher power culpable for the intractable conflicts of sexual desire, the abject sadness of the events is far greater, and Helen’s ultimate death does not restore any cosmic order. However, while we recognise well the destructive power of burning love in the 21st century, some of the driving forces behind Phaedra feel shallow in a godless vacuum: why does Sofiane simultaneously pursue Helen and Isolde? Why, when faced with an ultimatum, does he choose Isolde over Helen? Why does Isolde, despite her outrage at Sofiane, begin a relationship with him in the knowledge that he has been sleeping with her mother? These questions remain inadequately answered.

Some of the questions Stone leaves us with result from slightly underdeveloped plots and characters; some are incisive. We learn nothing from Hugo suddenly speaking in Arabic to Sofiane, and the significance of Sofiane’s tepid observations on the relationship between coloniser and colonised are never elucidated. Equally, we never find out whether it is Sofiane’s design to inflict the same pain on Helen’s family which Helen inflicted on his own, nor do we know for sure whether Achraf’s car was sabotaged by Moroccan officials, as suggested by Helen, or crashed in the stupor of inebriation, as Sofiane believes.

Stone does not show us why humans continue to suffer at the hands of gods who don’t exist. Greek tragedy typically presents the complex and imperfect struggles of ignorant humans against the absolute, complete power of the gods; Stone’s Phaedra pits the modern supremacy of the individual against the grander narratives that try to fill the void left by religion.

Image : Assaad Bouab and Janet McTeer in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

Review by Cian Kinsella 

Cian is a Classics teacher and part-time pub quizmaster living in London who is primarily interested in music but is also interested in theatre, literature, and visual arts. He is particularly intrigued by the relationship between art, criticism, and the capital forces always at play. Furthermore, he believes that subjectivity – which is ultimately at the heart of all artistic and cultural criticism – should not be concealed, but probed and perhaps even celebrated. Who decides what we like? How do they construct widely held beliefs about what is good? These are two of the questions Cian looks to address.

Cian’s latest feature on Abundant Art Breakin’ Convention: Standing on the shoulders of hip hop giants – Abundant Art

Information and Tickets Phaedra | National Theatre



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