'Phaedra' review or 'I think I work best in profile.'

Phaedra(s) –
Barbican Theatre, 10th June 2016

There are at least three different Phaedras rammed into this sprawling LIFT production, all of which are played by the riveting French actress Isabelle Huppert. She is spectacular and manages to maintain her dignity despite an awful lot of fuss, blood and writhing. But Christ is this show long, draining, largely humourless and – weirdly – male. There’s Greek tragedy, Kane and a bit of J M Coetzee in here but – despite all these influences – ‘Phaedra(s)’ feels a little cheap.

In some ways, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s stylish production is the epitome of European glamour – a glamour which is personified by Huppert but also written into the make-up of Malgorzata Szczesniak’s elegant set. For the first third of this production – written by Wajdi Mouawad and based on Euripides’ and Seneca’s writings on Phaedra – a huge reflective wall lines the right hand side of the stage and the rest of the set remains cool and bare, except for the misty projections that flicker against the back wall. It looks like a rather classy dream laced with malice. Kane’s section plays out in a huge glass box  (all the better to admire our specimens in) and the final third of the production - a post-modern wink based on J M Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello - unfolds on a clear and contemporary-looking stage. The lines are very clean, the staging crisp, the camera work classy.

But this veneer of sophistication is very thin. I guess that makes sense thematically: this production asks a lot of questions about the contrast between a woman’s public appearance and private self. But it also makes for a very ugly show – and I’m not convinced the ends justify the demeaning means.

The first third of the show is particularly ugly. Huppert spends much of this opening segment screaming out in desire or agony and rolling about on the stage. She wears a straggly blonde wig, black sunglasses and a raunchy outfit. I’m not sure we once see her eyes.

There’s some groaning about Hippolytus – and some talk of a world in which ‘palaces have paved the ground over the anger of the earth’ – but there’s mainly just blood and boobs and sex. An Arab dancer - Rosalba Torres Guerrero – wiggles about incessantly in a tiny silver bikini. There is something very masculine about her dance and perhaps all those head-flicking stomps are meant to be empowering but it all looks pretty Eurovision to me. At various stages of the dance, Guerrero turns her back to the audience and wiggles her bum in our faces. I look away.

Huppert rolls around in blood-stained pants, plays ball with a shaggy dog and simulates sex with Hippolytus. She screams I LOVE at the top of her lungs. If there had been a shaft of light in here – a glimpse of irony – then all of this might’ve been quite interesting but these scenes are closed, obscure and dark. They feel shallow and vaguely depressing. Huppert just about manages to ride the wave but only in spite of - rather than because of - the performing requests made of her.

Kane’s ‘Phaedra’ kicks off and things get a lot more interesting and ripply. The dynamic between Huppert’s Phaedra and Andrzej Chyra’s Hippolytus is fascinating. Chyra finds strange shafts of goodness in Hippolytus – an 'odd sort of purity' - and Phaedra begins to exert a twisted control over things. But the focus in this Phaedra feels off. This is Huppert’s show but Kane’s Phaedra is – at heart – about Hippolytus and his depression. With Hippolytus in the shadows, the Kane's devastating rewrite is muted. Hippolytus’ explosive agony in the closing scene – as he marvels at how alive he feels with death about to engulf him - never comes to light. 

With our senses and patience worn down, the final third of this odyssey begins - and it’s easily the best sequence of the night. Huppert plays a brilliant novelist – J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello – who dazzles as she fields questions about women, mythology, sex and feminism. Huppert's Elizabeth is strong, outraged, fiendishly smart and a little bit broken. At one point a clip is shown of a Jessica Lange film, in which Lange’s character gets a lobotomy. Huppert coils up in her chair and covers her face. The pain she feels at this moment seems to encompass so much. The conversation moves onto the impact of old age on female identity – and it is a question that Huppert haltingly navigates. Am I still a woman as middle age approaches, asks Huppert? A great silence opens out on stage and it is filled with sadness, defiance – and just a hint of fear.


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