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Review of Hippolytus at the Hope Theatre

HippolytusJust as the original Greek tragedy was rewritten by Euripides, this is Hippolytus reimagined, to be fascinated and challenged by the moral questions it poses. Catharsis Theatre, with director Justin Murray, have taken these huge subjects of chastity, religion, revenge, seduction, murder and love and reworked them into the small space of The Hope Theatre in Islington. The play, rewritten to incorporate elements of modern life, shows us a modern university lecturer who finds himself engaging in real time with the characters he is trying to teach about. In this process, as the old story of lecturer-seduces-student plays out to it usual sad ending, he becomes the taught, and his students the teachers.

We walk into the theatre as the audience to find a lecturer seated on a chair. His command of the stage is total, even as he sits in silence. So we whisper as we take our seats. “There is no need to whisper,” the character says. The lecture will not begin until everyone is seated.

Some of the cast are trained dancers or aerialists as well as actors. One particularly enchanting aspect about this production is the combination of nuanced expression with fluid movement. There is a perfect flow from start to end and, although this is theatre, the small theatre space makes it akin to watching faces and bodies close up on the big screen. So we get the best of both worlds – the thrill of live performance combined with the intimacy of detail in face of body. The result is captivating. The women dance hypnotically into every corner of the stage and, with clever use of silk ribbon, weave a web around Hippolytus that he does not detect until it is too late. He thinks he is in control but we soon realise it is the women who hold the power, even in death.

It really does show, as the programme notes suggest, how in spite of all the advances our modern society is making in terms of gender and sexuality, some things have changed little if at all. Isobel Wolff is magnificent, stunning and fearful alternating between Aphrodite and the nurse, leading the lecturer on to his deserved and dreadful fate. Watching her felt like watching a master of the dramatic art. In herself, she was an education. Ben Scheck, as the lecturer and Hippolytus, more than holds his own against Wolff’s charisma. His expression of both characters’ vulnerability combined with arrogance means he uses the space available to maximum effect to pull us in and capture us, as he did his with his student, Jess and is then falsely accused of in the Greek. Tamsin Shasha’s Phaedra, intense and beautiful, entertains and teaches. Her suicide, followed by her claim of rape, leads us to the terrible climax with Julian Hutton as the dark and thunderous Theseus, Phaedra’s husband and Hippolytus’ father.

There was an added interest too, which made this production worthy of support, independent of its quality, which is that the Hope was the first Off West End venue to have an in-house agreement with Equity to pay a living wage to actors, managers and box-office staff. The theatre receives no public subsidy.

Catharsis specialises in reinterpreting ancient dramas for modern settings. Hippolytus is a perfect example of this done well. For me it was like watching butterflies emerge from the chrysalis of the past, a thing of dance, passion, total beauty. Seeing it was a complete life-enhancement, as good as anything on the West End stage or on the screen.

5 Star Rating

Review by Ruth Gledhill

‘You are not your name, you are not your job. Maybe whoever you think you are isn’t as important as how you act. And I am going to make you see that.”
A man walks onto a stage and starts giving a lecture on Greek tragedy. But who is the goddess he keeps glimpsing out of the corner of his eye? And why do the characters from his notes keep drifting off the page and into his world? Welcome to the twisted world of Hippolytus, a dark story of guilt, gender, and the things we can’t run away from.

This unique, playful reinvention interweaves a story from our own world, inspired by true events, with the play originally penned in 428 BC by the master dramatist behind Medea and The Bacchae. Physical theatre, Greek tragedy, and psychological drama collide in this powerful new reimagining of the classic devised by the company.

Cast: Tamsin Shasha – Phaedra, Ben Scheck – Hippolytus, Isobel Wolff – Aphrodite, Julian Hutton – Theseus, Lizzie Buckingham – Chorus, Eleanor Russo – Chorus, Briony Wyatt – Chorus.

Creatives: Director Justin Murray
Lighting Designer Kirsten Buckmaster
Sound Designer Philip Matejtschuk
Costume Designer J Childe Pendergast
Stage Manager Ariel Harrison

Company Information: Catharsis Theatre was formed in 2013 by director Justin Murray, with the express intention of creating new imaginations of ancient drama which speak to us where we are now. Hippolytus, our debut show, was initially developed as a commission for arts festival Art in Action 2014.

The Hope Theatre

Wednesday 3rd June 2015


  • Ruth Gledhill

    Ruth Gledhill, on Twitter @ruthiegledhill, contributes regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Ruth Gledhill has worked on The Times from 1987 to 2014. Before that she was a news reporter and feature writer on The Daily Mail. She wrote her first theatre review, Tennessee Williams 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', while serving indentures at The Birmingham Post & Mail. After leaving the Midlands in 1984 she decided to concentrate on news. She is delighted to be able to revive her love of writing about the stage as a critic for London Theatre. Public profile http://journalisted.com/ruth-gledhill

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