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Hippolytus

Euripides in a new version by David Crook
Tough Theatre Company
White Bear Theatre
(2010)

Publicity photo

Theatre will always be indebted to the Greeks and their great comedians and tragedians. Euripides is often accredited as the last in a line of Greek tragedians after Aeschylus and Sophocles. His play Hippolytus is thought to have first been staged in 428 BC and now, thousands of years on, is currently playing at the White Bear Theatre in its latest incarnation courtesy of the Tough Theatre Company.

The White Bear Theatre in Kennington is miles away from the amphitheatres of Greece, not only geographically, but in size too. Whereas in amphitheatres standing and orating long sections of text would be a fitting directorial approach due to the thousands of audience members, in the intimate setting of the White Bear this creates a staleness to a production heavily lacking in movement. Such speeches drag and it is unclear how much direction specific actors have received for their individual speeches as they hardly ever move even an arm in an expressive gesture to help portray their character’s emotion.

Tragedy should be full of emotion, but this never really surfaces in director Andy Bruskill’s production. The actors appear to place more emphasis on the superbly enunciated words rather than their meaning and seem to be holding back in their performances. It is unclear whether this is still nerves or due to a lack of direction. Shouting comes to represent anger and when Phaedra (Natasha Alderslade) argues with her nurse there is no intensity on the actors’ faces as they stand rooted at opposite sides of the stage bellowing at one another in a war purely of words. There is no tenderness or tension anywhere between many of the characters and this leads to a bland performance as empathy is never successfully established.

Tough Theatre’s modern dress production costumes Hippolytus as a combat trouser-wearing quasi-guerrilla warrior, but it is Pamela Parry’s costume as the nurse which appears most out of place. A bold green apron makes her resemble a school dinner lady and when her back is turned to the audience, the apron’s ties resemble an oversized bra strap.

The chorus played a vital role in Greek theatre, but here it becomes for the most part a singular narrator, staring audience members in the eye. By having the chorus embodied in one person it loses its sense of power and strength; rather than the voice of the people, we hear the voice of a person.

Nick Lawson and Daphne Alexander are the strongest actors in Hippolytus’ cast of ten. In the title role, Lawson totally inhabits his character. Every sentence is delivered with meaning and does not become an empty chain of words. As the goddess of the hunt, chastity and childbirth, Artemis is played with a sense of powerful regality by Alexander in a glorious green gown, complete with silver face make-up as she provides the deus ex machina so often seen in Euripides’ plays.

It is difficult for any atmosphere or emotion to be evoked in Hippolytus with its harsh lighting and superficial performances. Simple touches could improve the production immensely, such as the use of incidental music. Phaedra’s suicide note would also benefit from being made out of paper, so as not to resemble a flapping tissue when clasped in Theseus’ hand. In a modern dress production, one would presume that writing implements would be modern too.

Playing until 13th June 2010.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen