4 stars out of 5
A high-spec, richly-textured chamber extravaganza
how gobsmackingly audacious, to turn the Greek myth of a woman in love with her stepson into a satire on smug London elites, while retaining its transgressive, tragic power. That’s what Australian director Simon Stone has done in this high-spec, richly-textured chamber extravaganza at the National Theatre.
He’s also restored the magnificent Janet McTeer to the London stage after too many years away. Here she leads a fine ensemble that includes France’s Assaad Bouab and Canadian screen star Mackenzie Davis.
Baoub was an established theatre actor – he appeared in Racine’s Phèdre long before he won over British fans in Call My Agent – while Davis, who was in Station Eleven and Terminator: Dark Fate, makes an impressive debut on the London stage.
They, and just about everyone else in the cast, give thrilling performances as utterly awful, self-absorbed people. Occasionally the show teeters on the brink of absurdity. Still, I’d call it a must-see.
McTeer is Helen, a complacently wealthy shadow environment minister with properties in Holland Park, Suffolk, Biarritz and Corfu. She and her lugubrious Iranian diplomat husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi, superb) are an embarrassment to their needy adult daughter (Davis) and smart-aleck teenage son (Archie Barnes).
Their usual quickfire familial sniping is disrupted by the arrival of Sofiane (Bouab), a Moroccan political exile who was nine when Helen stole away his musician father Ashraf as her lover 32 years before. Since she was also with Ashraf when he died in a car crash, Helen is associated in Sofiane’s mind with sex and death. Uh-oh.
The setup could look heavy handed – Davis’s character is named for another doomed lover, Isolde – but the detail of the personalities and relationships is terrific. Also in the cast, strong performances come from John Macmillan as Isolde’s husband Eric and Akiya Henry as Helen’s fellow MP Omolara.
It’s clear Helen and Hugo tried to be part-time pals or managers to their children rather than parents. The family loves the painstakingly metrosexual Eric more than Isolde does: indeed, they prefer him to her. No one knows how to cook, but there’s always Comte cheese in the fridge and Deliveroo on speed dial.
McTeer’s mesmerisingly Amazonian, power-suited and blow-dried Helen makes you feel the joy of the character’s sexual reawakening as well as its wrongness. Her exchanges with Henry’s Omolara fairly crackle, and the latter is more than a mere foil. Bouab paints Sofiane with great sensitivity, even though he’s emotionally toxic. Stone’s witty dialogue has a savage edge.
It is slickly staged in a slowly rotating glass box from designer Chloe Lamford. This is almost as much of a cliché as onstage rain these days, but it works here to showcase characters who don’t realise or care how they appear to others.
Among the many meticulous environments the box houses, is an upscale restaurant set where everyone starts throwing metaphorical stones. Stone’s attention to the minutiae is notable here: one of the extras in the restaurant, a young boy, can be seen filming the family meltdown on his mobile.
Stone’s retooling of Euripides, Seneca, Racine et al depicts a modern world where selfishness rules everything, not just the sexual arena. The retributive ending – which goes full Greek – jars slightly. But the sheer brio of this adaptation, and the deep conviction of the cast, absolutely carry it off.
4 stars out of 5
Six years after ‘Yerma’, director Simon Stone puts another old story into a giant glass box with thrilling and maddening results
Six years after he put Billie Piper in a giant glass box for his smash hit take on Yerma, Simon Stone is back with another uncompromising, thrilling story of a tormented woman, lifted from the classics. This time round it’s formidable actor Janet McTeer who’s behind the glass, taking chunks out of her unfortunate tank-mates with the appetite of a ravening piranha.
Stone takes Ancient Greek drama Phaedra less as his source material, and more as his approximate starting point for a play that skewers middle-class hypocrisy, colonialism, and the supreme, all-destroying selfishness of sexual obsession. Here, McTeer plays Helen, a wealthy middle-aged politician who we first see glowing in a silk shirt and pleasurably illuminated by the desire of the men around her. Her husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) brings her a hessian bag of food shopping in his teeth, like a soft-eyed labrador with a tennis ball. She kisses her relentlessly nice son-in-law Eric (John McMillan) full on the mouth. And her ex-lover’s son Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) calls her his “Viking goddess”, his childhood memories of her giving her an almost supernatural sexual power in his eyes.
Stone’s dialogue is sparky, hilarious and lightning-quick, its strands interlocking and tangling together like electric cables. He’s working with weighty themes like lust and fate, but he constantly destabilises them with ironic little touches: “that’s really f***ing deep”, says Phaedra’s nerdy 15-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes), stifling a discussion on the nature of free will as surely as if he’d sprayed the room with Lynx Africa.
In among the drollness, there’s some serious sexual power here. McTeer is riveting to watch as she hymns her long-lost sexuality in a fertile field of ripe golden corn, visibly gaining strength from her lust for Sofiane. As in Sondheim musicals, this is a show where mature womanhood is presented as much more satisfying than the greener variety.
Still, for all McTeer’s anti-hero glamour, there’s also something uncomfortably remorseless about Stone’s take on Phaedra – he’s far tougher on his heroine than Euripides, Seneca or Racine’s versions were, robbing her eventual fate of its tragedy. Her crime isn’t just allowing passion to destroy her family. It’s also blindly exoticising her lovers’ Moroccan heritage, ignoring their activism and luring them siren-like into mortal danger (while she gets rich espousing “tough on immigration” values). There’s no need to ponder how much Helen’s in the wrong for giving into lust when she’s so demonstrably monstrous in other ways.
What Stone does show beautifully, however, is the way that one selfish person drains the life from the people they lean on. The men Helen hurts form an endearing, shoulder-slapping brotherhood of misfits. Invigoratingly, Helen’s meek Christian friend Omolara (Akiya Henry) eventually finds the strength to call her a c***. It’s not a classic moment of Ancient Greek theatrical catharsis, but it’s one that’s totally in keeping with the spirit of Stone’s wry, stylish and occasionally maddening take on an old, old story.