'Phaedra's Love' review or 'Plenty of blow-jobs but not a lot of spunk.'

'Phaedra's Love', Sarah Kane
Arcola Theatre, Wednesday 5th October
Written for Culture Wars

Hippolytus sits sprawled amongst a stack of rubbish, his eyes fixated on a flickering, slash movie. He munches on McDonalds, has a sneaky wank and continues to munch on hamburgers. Supposedly he is royalty: the son of King Theseus and step-mum Phaedra. Supposedly, he is a deeply depressed and all-too insightful man. But, in director Bronwen Carr's bafflingly bland version of Kane's, 'Phaedra's Love', Hippolytus is a lazy and (despite the copious blow jobs) sexless slob. In this respect, he complements the production; a lethargic protagonist trapped inside an equally lacklustre show.

When Kane is done well, the theatre burns with a raw energy few other playwrights can conjure. But when Kane is done badly, the theatre feels empty and lifeless. Kane's words, which have the potential to pierce so painfully, sound crass if not delivered with economy and understanding. And Kane's plot, if handled clumsily, just feels preposterous. Above all, Kane's writing demands a clawingly strange atmosphere that digs deep inside you. Unfortunately, Carr's production tingles only with embarrassment, both on stage and in the audience.

There just isn't any conviction here. The actors seem lost, all clutching at wildly contrasting performance styles. Nicholas Shaw, as the layabout son Hippolytus, delivers his lines in a cool and monotonous voice. Kane's plays often have depression buried deep in their core but this doesn't call for empty, glazed over acting. Instead, it requires the type of achingly strained performance that throbs with absence. The best Kane performances pulse with a desire for something more – but Shaw's Hippolytus seems to welcome the abyss that engulfs him.

Joanna Roth, as Phaedra, goes in the opposite direction, performing her lines with a throaty and thespy zeal. Her performance feels too open and exposed: it unlocks all the hideous secrets that Phaedra nurtures instead of keeping them locked, painfully, inside. This over-expansiveness applies to the overall production and saps the play of any tension. The 'shocking' sex scenes – and there are shedloads here – do not come as a hideous release but rather a hilarious surprise. When Phaedra gives Hippolytus a blow job, it looks like she's rustling around for a snack. And, when a priest muscles in on Hippolytus' penis, it arises from a scene so devoid of frisson that it prompts titters and not gasps.

Kane without sex – or at least the desire for sex - is trying. Kane without depression is really tough to take. And Kane without rage makes for near-impotent theatre. When the anger – so important in this play – is finally revealed (not unleashed) in the final mob scene, its impact is only in its incongruity. A mob of youngsters, clean and clear cut, 'storm' the stage. They look like a bunch kids on a field trip and, even when they're ripping out intestines and raping ladies, it all feels depressingly sanitized.


  1. Is this meant to be an ironic counterpoint to you Guardian blog "Calm down dear, it's only a theatre review"? A very personal, splenetic reading from the Church of true Kane no doubt, but IMO a misreading of the text in crucial places. 'Kane without rage makes for near impotent theatre' is a generalised, reductive and almost teenage response to a text about a character paralysed by feeling too little.


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