National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 8 April 2023
Ah… so this is based on all of the Phaedras (Euripides and Seneca both had versions of the story) then rather than just Racine’s Phèdre, which is what we got in the last two London outings, with Glenda Jackson then Diana Rigg, for this seamy tale of lust, gore, jealousy and quasi-incest. Got that?!
A very interesting programme article will tell you the difference between the multiple takes (the National’s programmes remain the most informative and best value for money in the capital) but what audiences really need to know is that this is very much Simon Stone’s Phaedra, and he has once again done what he effected upon Lorca’s Yerma at the Young Vic then subsequently in New York in 2016-7.
In other words, this is a slick, searingly modern, riff on a classic, where you may find yourself digging deep to try to find any real connection to the original text, and which, once again, offers a humdinger of a female lead role. Yerma had a jaw-dropping Billie Piper firing on all cylinders (and deservedly winning every acting prize going) and here we get Janet McTeer in an enthralling return to the London stage.
McTeer plays Helen (formerly Phaedra) a prominent member of the Shadow Cabinet, living a life of Champagne Socialist luxury with her privileged family, brought up short by the arrival of her Hippolytus, here Sofiane, the slightly wild offspring of a now-deceased Moroccan lover, and played with a compelling mixture of saturnine intensity and the unknowable by Call My Agent’s Assaad Bouab, making a striking UK theatre debut.
In this day and age, I’m not sure substituting political for Royal scandal makes the play any more shocking or relevant, but Stone’s expletive-packed, often ribaldly funny new text still makes for compulsive viewing. Or at least it would if Stone, as his own director, then proceed to shoot himself in the foot by using a Chloe Lamford set (think revolving Perspex box, antiseptic, elegant and not dissimilar to Es Devlin’s work on The Lehman Trilogy) that takes so long to change between scenes that energy, pace and connection are severely tested.
Some of the gaps in onstage action are covered by an Arabic voiceover, simultaneously translated on a front cloth, which are the words of Sofiane’s dead Dad, trying to explain his absenteeism, selfishness and alcoholism. Interesting at first, that gets pretty repetitious and the audience is too often left sitting in pitch darkness then wondering what took so long when the curtain rises on new set pieces that don’t seem all that different from what we’ve just been looking at.
Tonally, the play is inconsistent, veering from social satire to arty drama to jet black comedy to blood-soaked melodrama, although it works perfectly well in each of those genres. If the observational comedy, and the examination of the gulf between people’s feelings and how they live out their lives, are the most successful aspects, the horrifying catharsis of the finale feels stuck in and slightly unearned, despite McTeer’s brilliance and the stark beauty of the stage picture, as though the author had suddenly remembered he was working from a piece of classic tragedy with its own plot trajectory.
All that said, there is a lot here to savour, primarily the performers. McTeer is magnificent: elegant, imperious, then vulnerable, very witty and then utterly disarmed at her own sexual reawakening. It’s hard to take your eyes off her, but Paul Chahidi and Akiya Henry match her superbly, with terrific comic flair edged with accurate underpinnings of real anxiety, as her husband and family friend respectively.
I also loved John MacMillan as her über-cool son-in-law, all tolerance and kindness until backed into an unacceptable corner, and Sirine Saba is haunting as the woman Sofiane left behind. Mackenzie Davis makes a potent impression as Helen’s disaffected daughter, although the character’s one-note moaning and ongoing self doubt get a little wearing. Bouab is a fascinating stage presence, even if the script doesn’t always give him the motivations to explain the character’s sometimes mystifying behaviour.
The fact that the entire thing takes place in a giant box, as though these people are part of an installation in some museum exhibition centred on how to totally fuck up your life, and the harsh mic-ing throughout (at no point does the dialogue sound remotely acoustic, despite the almost TV-like naturalism of the delivery), keeps the audience remote from the play and players. I assume that is a deliberate choice, but it is one that is likely to infuriate as many people as it delights. Stylistically, this very much feels like Yerma 2, but it’s a much less emotionally engaging experience, for all its theatrical panache and savage grandeur. For all that, Janet McTeer is unmissable, and so are several of her co-stars.