Simon Stone after Euripides, Seneca and Racine
National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)
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Despite the title, this isn’t a retelling of the ancient story of Theseus, his new wife Phaedra and her lust for his son Hippolytus. Described as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”, it’s not a version of any of their plays, though you can recognise some source ideas, elements from them that are reused, usually differently. This is an original work from writer-director Simon Stone that is very contemporary and has a strong impact.
Far from being a new wife, Helen (Janet McTeer), the Phaedra equivalent, is a long-married Minister in the Shadow Cabinet who falls for radical journalist Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) whose criticism of the government has forced him to flee Morocco. He is the lookalike son of her former lover Achraf who died in a car crash thirty years earlier.
The play opens in darkness with the voice of Achraf (Younès Bouab) in a recording made when Sofiane was a child but intended for him to hear as a grown-up, an apologia for the way that his love for Helen became more important than family, that continues between scenes through the play.
Unlike Hippolytus, Sofiane certainly isn’t preserving his chastity. Helen’s daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) falls for him too, and he does indeed give her something that Eric her considerate husband can’t.
Helen’s relationship with Sofiane is at the core of the story, making her, she says, “feel alive again”, but this is also a critical picture of a privileged family in their stylish Holland Park home who think themselves so progressive and aware but who can’t really conceive what lives are like in other cultures and circumstances.
Everything is staged within a slowly revolving glass box (designer Chloe Lamford)—stylish, open-plan living, bedroom, hotel room, restaurant, a cornfield, even a Moroccan mountainside—all somehow get in and out of it in blackouts as we listening darkness to Achral’s Arabic, with a projected text translation. That box is a barrier that keeps us at a distance, watching a first-rate cast presenting well-performed characters but as observers. Despite the drama that develops, it is strangely unmoving, though its satire is frequently funny.
Janet McTeer gives Helen a professional charisma with glimpses of real feeling over a necklace that Sofiane is wearing or in the release that their lovemaking gives her, and she goes wild when she drinks too much at a birthday party, a boy at another table capturing it all on his mobile. Its effect on her career is not the only trauma she will have to face as she realises the guilt in her life. It all adds up to a remarkable tour de force.
Assaad Bouab’s Sofiane is interesting as the man faced with the woman who had such an effect on his childhood but he gets little chance to show character other than as a self-centred shagging machine. It is Nadia Nadif, briefly seen as his wife Reda, who proves most moving.
John Macmillan is almost too nice as Eric, Isolde really doesn’t deserve him; Akiya Henry gives Helen’s plain-speaking political colleague Omolara a down-to-earth reality and Paul Chahidi turns in a lovely performance (he did gain my sympathy) as Hugo, Helen’s supportive diplomat, and diplomatic, husband.
The territories this Phaedra takes on promise something that goes much deeper than its near three hours actually offers in its critique of champagne socialists, rather limited look at the sexual needs of the older woman and at the allure of the other. It is its theatricality that holds the attention and a cast well earn the enthusiastic reception that they got on press night.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton