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Phaedra at the Lyttelton Theatre – National Theatre

I can’t say I’ve seen every play that’s ever been written and produced, but I was taken aback when I realised the play I was seeing last night was an updated form of one first seen around 428BC. The question is, was it worth waiting over 2,000 years to see. Well, let’s find out as we delve into the story of Phaedra by Simon Stone, after Euripides, Seneca, and Racine, at the National Theatre.

Mackenzie Davis and Assaad Bouab in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
Mackenzie Davis and Assaad Bouab in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

Helen (Janet McTeer) is a politician on the rise. She is currently a member of the shadow cabinet, and has a nice house in her constituency and a flat in Holland Park which she shares with her husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) and 15-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes) who likes nothing better than listening to “counter-cultural philosophical rap”. Also, constant visitors are Helen and Hugo’s daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) and her husband Eric (John Macmillan). They are a very liberal, socially aware bunch. For example, everyone calls Helen and Hugo by their first names and the family respects each other’s right to say what they feel. In fact, when they all get together, there is often what they describe in Hugo’s diplomatic circles, as a full and frank exchange of views. Still, as long as they present a united front in public, Helen doesn’t mind too much what happens behind closed doors. So, family life is good and political life even better for Helen. Her main friend outside the family is fellow shadow cabinet member Omolara (Akiya Henry) and together they are getting ready to topple the Tories and get a chance at real power and the ability to make a difference to the life of the common man/woman/person. Although she is slipping into post-menopausal middle-class middle age, Helen has a past, and it is that past that comes back into her life in the shape of Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) the exiled activist son of Achraf, a Moroccan dissident with whom she had a passionate affair decades earlier. The re-introduction of Sofiane in Helen’s life re-ignites something deep within her and sets off a chain of events that will change all their lives completely.

Where to start with Phaedra? I could take the easy way out and simply say I loved it! That would be the truth and would also mean I don’t have to write anything else. But the production deserves more from me. Let’s start with the story. Writer Simon Stone – who also directs – has kept the essentials of the original legend of Phaedra and transcribed it beautifully into the 21st-century world we live in today. Given the number of political scandals, many of which seem to be self-inflicted – over the years, Helen’s story is completely believable. Politicians are human beings after all, subject to the same emotions, desires, and wants as the rest of us. The problem is that we expect them to maintain control and when they don’t, they come crashing down, reduced to eating Kangaroo testicles in the jungle to survive. But it’s not just Helen’s story, it’s also the story of those smug middle-class neo-liberals who, because they went backpacking off the tourist trail in some third-world country, fully understand all the problems of everyone that isn’t lucky enough to be them. Guess what folks, you don’t, and Stone makes this very clear.

Turning now, and I mean that literally, to Chloe Lamford’s set design. A huge rotating box that becomes a sleek kitchen and bedroom, a vacant skyscraper office, a square of Sussex marshland thick with waist-high reeds, an expensive restaurant and in a truly spectacular final scene a snowbound Moroccan mountainside. Initially, I wasn’t keen on the box as it felt like we were outside looking in and there were moments where actors were partially hidden behind the upright pillars, but I actually warmed to it. The box, housing all their lives, was, to me, a wonderful metaphor of the ‘prison’ the characters, and especially Helen, were locked into and unable to escape. Scene changes were accompanied by chanting music, sometimes accompanied by the spoken words of Achraf to his son (voiced by Younes Bouab). Unfortunately, some of the scene changes felt very long and the speaking/music didn’t always hide the sounds of the change going on in the dark on the stage.

Finally, let’s talk about the performances themselves. Before turning to the lead, I do want to praise the performances of Archie Barnes as Declan and John Macmillan as Eric. Barnes is going to be someone to watch. Declan is a great example of what happens when trendy middle-class left-wing parents forget the basics of raising a child. He lacks direction, authority and respect and has the conflicts associated with a hormonal teenager taking their steps into the adult world without any real support. Barnes pulls this off perfectly, though when I was 15, if I had spoken to my parents the way Declan did, I would have been lucky to escape with a thick ear. Macmillan is wonderful as Eric, Isolde’s husband who tries too hard to see the positives in everything and sublimates himself so well that when he lets it all go, he really does explode. A wonderful performance that got a well-deserved round of applause as Eric exited the restaurant scene. And then there is Helen. I can already hear McTeer’s mantelpiece groaning under the weight of awards for this tour-de-force performance as Helen, a woman who despite hitting middle age, knows that she has still got life inside her and is determined to live it without letting anyone stop her doing so. Looked at in the cold light of day, Helen is a despicable person but, and this is the trick that most politicians have up their sleeve, she somehow makes you if not like her then want to help her. This is demonstrated beautifully in her exchanges with Omolara – an excellent performance by Akiya Henry – and in the last scene where, despite everything Hugo is there.

So yes, I really did like Phaedra. I found it fascinating, relevant and thoroughly enjoyable. I was dreading the two hours forty-minute runtime – I so love a play that’s sixty minutes long – but the time flew by and as the interval hit, I couldn’t wait for the second act to start so that I could get back into the story. I’m not 100% sure Phaedra will be to everyone’s taste and I think the highly emotionally charged ending is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but personally, I think the superb staging, lighting and commitment of the cast make the show one of the best things I’ve ever seen at the National and would happily recommend it to anyone that asks.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

In a house of glass, one must not throw stones.

After years of fierce focus on her political career, a politician turns her attention to her personal life.

The reappearance of a figure from her past shakes the foundations of her house and the beliefs that have underpinned her power.

As buried lust and loneliness surge to the surface, her actions threaten to destroy everything she has built.

Writer-Director Simon Stone (Yerma, Young Vic) reimagines Seneca’s famous tragedy in this striking new play.

Cast
Rhys Bailey – Ensemble / US Declan
Archie Barnes – Declan
Assaad Bouab – Sofiane
Paul Chahidi – Hugo
Mackenzie Davis – Isolde
Nicholas Gauci – Daoud/US Sofiane
Mohsen Ghaffari – Ensemble/US Hugo
Akiya Henry – Omolara
John Macmillan – Eric
Johanne Murdock – Ensemble/US Helen
Janet McTeer – Helen
Nadia Nadif – Aicha/US Oumayma/Reda
Emmanuel Olsuanya – Ensemble/US Eric
Sirine Saba – Reda
Dot Williams – Ensemble/US Isolde

Production Team
Simon Stone – Director
Chloe Lamford – Set Designer
Mel Page – Costume Designer and Associate Set Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting Designer
Stefan Gregory – Composer and Sound Designer
Alastair Coomer CDG – Casting
Nimmo Ismail – Associate Director
Ingrid Mackinnon – Intimacy Coordinator
Danièle Lydon – Dialect Coach

Lyttelton Theatre
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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