Edits throughout to add balancing comments on second half and after a good night’s sleep!
Britain gave up theatre censorship nearly 50 years ago and having struggled through the first half of Phaedra(s) at the Barbican tonight, I am tempted for the first time ever to think that may actually not have been such a good idea.
The age guidance on it is 16+ but I think any parent would be horrified at having taken even an 18-year-old to see this.
I left at the interval, having seen only two of the promised three Phaedras -Wajdi Mouawad and Sarah Kane’s but given I counted 11 people walking out in the first half, I actually think I did pretty well.
The production, from one of France’s national theatres Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, is crammed with obscenity from the actions on the stage, the nihilism of the world view to the casual violence of the words themselves.
Phaedra writhes around the stage with bloodstained knickers and this is not something you can unsee, particularly when the actor’s image is blown up on a massive screen; if I say the least unpleasant thing Hippolytus did with his socks was to blow his nose on them you may have an idea of the level of unpleasantness.
The language is juvenile, very much in the swearing is big and clever mould; I doubt any of the actors would want their mothers to see this.
It also contains quite the most degrading part for an actor I have ever come across: crawling around the stage in budgie smugglers, fetching a ball with the teeth – I wouldn’t want to have spent years of training for this.
Yet if you are a fan of Sarah Kane, this is something that will appeal. The abjection and nihilism that I find repellent, is beautiful and moving in other eyes.
I also gather from my friend who stayed all the way through that the second half — consisting of a third take on Phaedra this time based on J M Coetzee– was much stronger although he also noticed another five people walking out. He reported three curtain calls, loud applause and about 1/6th of the half full auditorium on their feet.
There is no denying the set is stunning, beautiful, clever like a cavernous photography studio and adding to the sense that the audience are voyeurs. A room with glass walls for more voyeurism moves in and out of view so we can see the characters watching other characters — no prizes for guessing what they’re doing. Oh yes, and Hippolytus’ playing with a toy electric car.
There is also some very impressive dancing, in a variety of directions including backwards and the highest heels I’ve seen on any dancer. The haunting opening, a poem set to music sung like fado whilst Rosalba Torres Guerrero dances is the part of Phaedra(s) I am glad I saw.
Technically the production is also spot on. Double surtitles mean there is no problem with visibility and the slowness of delivery means, if nothing else, this is a great opportunity to test your French.
The gorgeous Isabelle Huppert is the star and shines in a gruelling series of parts. The only problems came with screeching: hard on the ears from actors who are wearing microphones. I last saw Huppert on stage at the National in 1996 in Marie Stuart; on the whole, I preferred that.
I am a huge fan of Racine and I guess I was hoping that his play would glimmer through but no such luck in the first half. I gather from my stalwart friend that some of Racine’s words do make it through in the end.
But the problem remains that setting a tale about the shock of a step-mother falling for her stepson in a world where anything goes, is that it is not at all clear why there is a problem at all.
No-one hangs herself from a sink (does that actually work anyway??) in Racine or from a shower. His Phèdre is low on oral sex, simultaneous orgasm, lap dancing and indeed socks but it delivers an emotional punch that I did not feel from Phaedra(s).
The Odeon’s effort stands up particularly poorly in comparison with the last production I saw of Phèdre : Diana Rigg in the title role and Toby Stephens (1998).
If you are going to produce something based on a character from Greek tragedy, it would be much more meaningful to follow the approach of the Almeida’s Greek season – commentaries on the original stories that were great plays in themselves.