REVIEW | PHEADRA AT THE NATIONAL
Euripedes' Hippolytus is one of the most unpleasant tragedies ever produced by the ancient Greeks, and that's including The Oresteia. Amongst the grand themes of Desire and Destiny lies one of the most mean-spirited depictions of women and sex written since Eve grabbed the apple, presented in the character of Pheadra; step-mother of the titular hero and wife of Theseus. I shan't bore you with the ins and outs of the original myth, but suffice to say I was deeply curious as to how Simon Stone was going to make such a tale palatable. His interpretation claims to merge and mix Euripedes original story with the retellings by Seneca and Jean Racine, neither of which are much more sympathetic towards Pheadra's character. She remains throughout all three a parody of an evil woman, a destroyer of men, a whore, gold-digger and philanderess with no motivation beyond satisfying her own wicked desires with, frankly, not a single redeeming quality. Luckily, however, Stone takes a different approach.
Stone's Pheadra, played by the fabulous and talented Janet McTeer, is a successful and charismatic mother and MP. Her past as the lover of a now-dead Moroccan dissident comes back to haunt her in the shape of Sofiane (the smoulderingly sexy Assaad Bouab), his son. Stone's Pheadra is not particularly complex; her motivations and desires are clear and, perhaps mostly importantly, understandable: she seeks to absolve her past through her dead lover's son. This is hardly the most Daedalian of inner monologues but it is a truly excellent one to forage from the misogynist wreckage left by two thousand years of men writing the myth as a warning against the evils of letting women into your family. Stone succeeds very thoroughly at finally giving the character of Pheadra a fair shot. But what about the rest?
A driving point of the play, both in terms of narrative and audience engagement, is of course the affair between Pheadra and Sofiane. Both actors are very good in their own ways, but the chemistry between the pair is simply lacking. We have no reason to root for them or, as the play progresses, anybody much. Pheadra's husband and children are hilariously introduced to us in the first scene as a satire of a modern family - however, beyond their roles as ironic placeholders for bratty teenagers (Archie Barnes as the precocious Declan) or woke millennials (Mackenzie Davis as Isolde) there is little to be said. The pacing changes dramatically both before and after the oddly-timed interval, leaving the audience gasping for a side to straddle. Thematic throughlines disappear and reappear at jarring times, leaving us slightly unsure as to what the play is actually about. Is it forgiveness? Fate? Colonialism? There are simply too many elements packed into a play that could well have benefitted from another half hour - or at least some shorter set changes.
That being said, the staging is some of the best I've seen in recent years. The slowly rotating glass cage encapsulating the stage adds an eery dimension of distance between audience and actors, so when the show does occasionally settle into itself it produces some absolutely marvellous theatre. There are hilarious moments as well as chilling ones, with some fantastic acting and witty writing - it's well worth a watch, if only as an act of redemption for Pheadra's long-mistreated character.
Cover image credit: National Theatre