2 February 2023
Phaedra (National Theatre, Lyttelton) Review

A friend and I saw Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Phaedra (review missing here) at the Barbican in 2015.  It had a lot of problems (and, if not for people sat in front of us who laughed so hard in places not intended for laughter that the usher threatened to eject them if they don’t stop, it would’ve been us on the chopping block), but it had Isabelle Huppert.  She made her Phaedra sympathetic and flawed in a relatable way.  That woman can do no wrong on stage, and, expensive though the tickets were, we felt happy for having seen the production.  We planned on seeing this Phaedra together also, mostly to compare and contrast, but things didn’t go to plan, and I ended up seeing it by myself.

This Phaedra has even more problems, if that’s possible.  Granted, I saw the first preview, so I’m not going to complain about little niggly bits that don’t really affect the experience and will most likely get sorted by the time the formal opening night rolls around.

First and foremost there’s the content.  Obviously Phaedra is Phaedra (though this production was supposed to be inspired by other classics as well), so it’s not like one could deviate from the story all that much.  This play may’ve done better under a different name and only being loosely based on the original story.  Helen, a modern-day politician is married to Hugo, but falls in love and/or sex with a Sofiane, a young man, who is the son of her lover from many years ago.  Helen’s daughter Isolde (seriously? how heavy-handed can this get?) is married to Eric, but falls for Sofiane also. Helen and Hugo have another child, Declan, who is completely irrelevant to the story and feels a bit like prop.  The text is banal, trite, and is full of cringy one-liners, such as “you landed on my face” (in the context of having sex after a long break must be like riding a bike) and “you fell onto his penis” (when Helen suggests she didn’t mean for things to happen as they did).  Everything about everyone feels fake:  when Helen screams in despair, when Eric throws a glass at a window, when Isolde is pacing around Sofiane’s flat, none of it feels genuine.  It’s half farce half something else, but this mix doesn’t work.  What’s worse, there is absolutely no chemistry between anyone, least of all Sofiane and Helen or Sofiane and Isolde.

Hugo is so camp, I genuinely thought there was going to be a plot twist where he tells everyone he is gay.  Helen’s friend Omolara (who is presented as her best, if not the only, friend) claims the two were never really friends.  Declan shuffles aimlessly around the set like a proxy for a two-child family.  Eric mumbles (presumably unintentionally) and is inaudible good chunk of the time.  Isolde has some kind of a moral compass that appears and disappears as it suits her and is somewhat of an entitled brat.  Sofiane is so bland and devoid of both sex appeal and personality, you have to wonder why all these women are throwing themselves at him.  And Helen…  Helen is an ageing rich woman who wants to rekindle her youth with a bit of fun (and, frankly, having sex with a younger man who is essentially a complete stranger to her is hardly a taboo in this day and age).  None of this adds up into a cohesive and engaging story.

Janet McTeer (Helen) and Mackenzie Davis (Isolde) are both seasoned actresses, and their talents are wasted in this play.  That, or, perhaps, not directed and channelled into an engaging narrative.  They try to do the best they can with the text they have been given, but the script is bland, one-dimensional, and is neither a comedy nor a drama (in fact, in borders on farce in some scenes).

The text is spoken at what feels like a million words a minute.  I caught myself thinking that they must’ve trained and rehearsed at that speed because nothing about it was natural.  A family kicking around the kitchen in their home at night does not speak at these speeds.  It makes the play difficult to understand, and I saw several audience members clearly tuning out.

The restaurant, oh the restaurant, by far my favourite part of the play.  Act II starts with Helen’s birthday party.  Now, arguably, the party could’ve been set up in Helen’s home (the first set of the play) with just the core actors.  But as this was a restaurant, we were treated to a couple with a child silently chatting in the other corner of the restaurant and then slowly and methodically eating spaghetti whilst Helen’s family argued themselves into oblivion.  It’s worth saying that there is a plot point around it (the kid films the argument, which, in turn, sets up a subsequent chain of events), but Helen’s own son could’ve just as easily filmed it all from the living room sofa.  Mind you, I’m not complaining.  I am just pointing out that one of the highlights of the show for me was this family sat in the corner just chatting and eating for a good 10 minutes if not more….

And then there was the set…  It’s a glass box.  Haven’t we learned anything from the original run of The Lehman Trilogy where they had to take some panels out to make sure the sound travels properly?  Clearly not.  The Phaedra box is glassed in on all sides, and, mic’d though the cast are, the sound doesn’t travel properly and is going in and out a fair bit.  The box is also causing huge gaps between scenes for set changes.  Yes, of course it’ll get tighter as the show gets further into its run, but there is no way it’ll shrink to 30 seconds per change.  Some of the scene changes have the voice of Sofiane’s father played (and text displayed over the curtain) as if reading the letters written to his son, but they don’t have much content and come off as a pointless filler.  If time had to be occupied, I think I’d rather watch photos of Helen with her family and with Sofiane’s father.

The glass box is a very obvious “people in glass houses” reference (and has been done time and time again so is hardly new as a concept), but the play itself doesn’t present or solve any problem:  it’s not a commentary on anything in particular.  It’s just a story a mom and a daughter who want to shag the same guy, but one of them has a bigger problem seeing how inappropriate that is.  In fact, this is just a story about members of a lucratively wealthy family being bored and shagging outside marriages without caring about who gets hurt.  Middle/upper class angst without any purpose or point.

To add insult to injury, there is a matter of surtitles.  Although the play is mostly in English, there is a good chunk of text in French and Arabic.  Surtitles are projected onto the black bars that frame the glass box.  You’d think that projecting white on black is an easy thing to do, especially at the National.  But no.  The projection at the top was so light, it was invisible, and the one on the bottom was barely visible.  To make things worse, the surtitles were out of sync with the actors…  Hopefully the audio issues will get fixed during the previews, but surtitles were inexcusable.  Black curtains on the side of the stage would’ve gone a long way if the lighting of the glass box interferes with the projection.

By the middle of the second act, the audience clapped every time the curtain went down (presumably in hopes that it signified the end of the show).  When Helen fell over screaming at some unfortunate news she received, the audience laughed.  I was reminded of something Russell Tovey (all hail Russell, my favourite contemporary actor) once said in an interview.  He was talking about a scene Angels in America where his character gets slapped and that he said to himself something along the lines of “if the audience cheers, I failed in presenting this character” (I’m paraphrasing here).  Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened with McTeer:  a dramatic moment, but the audience was so exhausted from the show, they couldn’t do anything but laugh…

I haven’t seen any other productions written or directed by Simon Stone, and so have no basis for comparison.  As I said, this is previews, so nevermind taking things with a grain of salt, one needs a giant salt shaker.  But between the length (3h 15m), the cliched text, the silly staging, and subpar acting, it’s not something I’d want to see again in a hurry.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£10.

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