Euripides, adapted by David Stuttard
Actors of Dionysus at the Chapel Studio, York (touring)
Now in their eleventh year, Actors of Dionysus are a touring company specializing in Classical Greek drama. I've had the pleasure of seeing most of their productions since 1997 and never cease to marvel at their dedication in touring these great plays the length and breadth of Britain on a limited budget. AoD's co-founder David Stuttard is also the company's translator and director, and in recent years his productions have made increasing use of adapted texts and physical theatre; an approach which has resulted in superb versions of Medea, Bacchae and Trojan Women. My expectations were therefore high for Hippolytus, Euripides' tale of the prince whose celibacy so enrages the goddess of love that she makes him the victim of his stepmother's incestuous passion.
Over the years AoD have set their productions in the present day, the nineteenth century, the Renaissance and - gasp! - Ancient Greece; quite rightly too, as the human desires represented by the gods are timeless (and dysfunctional royal families, like the poor, are always with us). Old hands will therefore not be surprised to find that as we take our seats we are confronted with Aphrodite (Emily Wright), lolling on the tomb-like structure which is the focal point of Duncan Woodward-Hay's elegantly simple Victorian Gothic se, and languidly eating fruit. In Stuttard's adaptation the goddess disguises herself as Euripides' nameless Servant, a typically ingenious touch that gives Aphrodite a mortal 's view of the unfolding tragedy and makes the play more comprehensible to a modern audience. Wright gives a compelling performance as the scorned Aphrodite and may well be the only actress ever required to play the violin and recorder in the part!
The other roles are also strongly cast and well-played - Theseus (Roger Ringrose), the upright ruler whose neglect of his wife and son gives Aphrodite the raw materials of her revenge plot; Phaidra (a touching performance by Leila Crerar), the young stepmother driven to suicide by her unrequited passion for Hippolytus, and her down-to-earth Nurse (Kaye Quinley, giving the best performance of the evening), who is at first appalled by Phaidra's guilty secret but soon becomes her accomplice. Poor Hippolytus must be one of the most thankless title roles in drama - he can easily come across as a repressed prig - but Kevin Johnson makes the most of the role, lighting votive candles to his beloved Artemis and dedicating poems to her.
There are so many things right with this inventive and involving production it is an awful shame that things go so horribly wrong in the last few minutes. In Euripides' beautiful final scene Artemis appears to the dying Hippolytus only to abandon him at the very last moment because she is forbidden to look upon the dead - in AoD's 1999 production of the play Hippolytus' words "How easily you leave our long companionship" brought tears to my eyes. Five years later Stuttard has chosen to represent Artemis as a disembodied voice, this line is simply thrown away, Hippolytus dies in an agonized frenzy rather than with resignation and the play ends with an abruptness which must have left many people in the audience confused and (if they were familiar with the play) thoroughly annoyed .
However, apart from the botched ending this is a fascinating and enjoyable production of one of the lesser-known Greek classics. All credit to AoD for their tireless work in making this endangered art form accessible to audiences in Britain and beyond.
Touring to Tunbridge Wells, Brighton, Bath, Margate, Oxford, Buxton, Tewkesbury and London until 3rd April
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson