Loosely based on the Ancient Greek and Roman tragedy by Euripedes and Seneca; Simon Stone’s Phaedra is a modern take that homes in on family dynamics, desire in older women, and the politics of the UK. The crux of the original is a woman falling in love with her step-son, now we see a woman falling in love with her ex-lover’s son: the adaptation allowing for all the women in the piece to have more agency, and give the central character of Helen, played extraordinarily by Janet McTeer, more nuanced complexities.
We open to Chloe Lamford’s remarkable glass box set, peering into the family life of Helen, her husband, her daughter, her son-in-law and her son. The opening dialogue by Stone perfectly captures family life by everyone talking over and picking at each each other until Sofiane comes in and challenges the status quo. Sofiane being the son of Helen’s ex-Moroccan lover Ashraf who left his family for her not long before dying in a car accident.
Stone’s characterisation of the different members of the family feels awfully stereotypical of an upper middle-class family, to the point where feels a bit too on the nose. Isolde, Helen’s daughter, works for an NGO; Declan, Helen’s son, listens to ‘counter-cultural philosophical rap’; Eric, Isolde’s husband, is a bright pink haired vegan; and Hugo, Helen’s husband, is a diplomat. All of which is eclipsed in Helen as a politician who seems to be at a level of self absorbed that she barely likes her own family!
Besides this, Stone’s staging combined with Lamford’s set draw you into the action, as the audience become elusive intrusive observers of the shocking twists and turns of the piece. Stone’s balance of comedy; examination of female desire, particularly for menopausal women; and insight into the intricacies of the immigrant experience keep the audience engaged beyond the shock factor, and help in overlooking certain aspects of the piece that feel trite.
The performances alone are enough to make Phaedra worthy of a ticket purchase, with Janet McTeer being an exemplary leading lady complimented by a poignant and assured performance from Black Mirror’s Mackenzie Davies, (an impressive turn for a professional theatre debut), a heartbreakingly comical act from Paul Chahidi (a personal highlight), and finally Assad Bouab’s singular performance, fluidly moving different relationships and different languages so seamlessly.
In short, Phaedra is not perfect, as it juggles between leaning too far into it’s tragedian routes versus making the modern aspects feel too archetypal, but the staging and performances elevate this piece above it’s flaws into an engaging high drama.