The Colepit, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
From 01 November 2014 to 27 November 2014
Review by Gill Stoker
This production, directed by Charlie Parham, is Antic Face's debut as a new company. It takes place in an unconventional space, namely a tunnel normally used as an entrance to the V&A Museum via the Exhibition Road tunnel running from South Kensington underground station.
There are just under 40 seats available for each performance, in single rows on either side of the space. The floor of the performance space is covered in a bright blue, textured carpet evoking Aegean seas and skies. The show runs for 90 minutes without an interval, making for an intimate and intense experience.
Antic Face has two main aims. One of these is to tackle the issue of gender imbalance in the theatre: according to recent surveys, creative and performance roles for men quite noticeably outnumber those for women.
For example, one 'snapshot' survey taken on 13 September 2014 gives the figures for women as follows: directors 38%, performers 37%, writers 8%, lighting designers 22%, and sound designers 17%, with only designers showing anything near equality with a healthy 57%; the figures for women involved in West End productions on the same date are far lower, with directors and performers both 29%, writers 4%, and only one play by a woman, The Mousetrap (see www.tonictheatre-advance.co.uk/learning/#stats).
And, interestingly, characters in plays written by men are split 65% male to 35% female, whereas characters in plays written by women are split 48% male to 52% female. Antic Face's other aim is to create opportunities for young people wishing to work in the theatre, with lectures and workshops running alongside each production.
The first known production of Euripides' Hippolytos was in Athens in 428 BC as part of the Dyonisian Festival. Since then, the story of Phaedra, wife of Theseus, and her obsessive love for her stepson has been tackled by many playwrights and novelists in different languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish and English. There have also been musical and film versions.
Some of these other versions of the story depict Phaedra as an older woman, and make much of her attraction towards a younger man—for example the film starring Melina Mercouri (1962), or more recently stage versions with Diana Rigg (1999) and Helen Mirren (2009) in the role.
But, going back to the details of the myth, Phaedra was indeed a young woman, rescued along with her elder sister Ariadne by Theseus from the Labyrinth in Crete. She would therefore have been closer in age to Hippolytos than to his father Theseus whom she subsequently marries.
So, in this modern translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, Antic Face is quite correct to cast a young actress (Emma Hall) in the role of Phaedra, close in age to the actor playing Hippolytos (David Shields).
Completing the cast of four are Emma Amos as the Nurse and Martin McGlade as Theseus. They create a strong and well balanced ensemble, with skilful doubling and trebling of other roles where necessary (for example, Emma Hall also plays the rival goddesses, Aphrodite and Artemis).
All four actors are totally convincing and compelling in the wide range of heightened emotions through which they are required to travel. The tragic ending is especially shocking, as the bloodied Hippolytos lies dying on the ground as his distraught father, who has brought about his death thinking he has raped Phaedra, discovers too late that he is innocent.