Audiences spend a lot of time in the dark in Simon Stone’s Phaedra – thanks to countless blackouts and scene changes – but the National Theatre’s fraught and fragile production also burns bright with a barely suppressed rage. All encased in Chloe Lamford’s boxed set (not too dissimilar from Es Devlin’s work on The Lehman Trilogy), it isn’t long before things start to crack.
Parliamentarian and shadow cabinet member Helen (Olivier nominee Janet McTeer) gets sucked into personal affairs from the past when a man named Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) – whose deceased father was close to her – turns up at the family home. Like a sexually liberal Jesus, he gets cosy with any female in his vicinity and tries to fix their problems. Helen still dreams of the father, and daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davies) feels deprived of her childlike emotions due to how she was brought up by her parents.
The version of ourselves which we present to others, and the multiple ‘selves’ we have in our lives, forms the subtle, central focus of this modern version of Phaedra. It’s evident in Helen shutting down her political programming, but also in the very way in which this play is staged. We peer in through glass walls, characters are always forced to give a performance – not just to others, but to us, as well.
Even the minor criticisms I have with Stone’s direction are understandable in hindsight. The frustrating and incomprehensible crosstalk in the tragedy’s opening alludes to an atmosphere whereby individuals must always convey emotion, but never process it. McTeer’s flustered Helen maintains a similar sense of panic throughout, yet the arc of her finding peace in a man which makes her feel human again makes sense, albeit long after the curtain falls. Her despair and loss in the play’s shocking conclusion is strongly felt and expressed by McTeer, and chaotically emotive.
It’s certainly a group effort, though it’s unfortunate we don’t get much of a character arc from brooding teen Declan (Archie Barnes) beyond harbouring a stereotypical dislike towards pretty much everyone. It’s a shame because as the intermittent audio recordings talk of a father who deals with his son’s resentment, there’s a sense of generational trauma being passed through families – not only in terms of Sofina, but perhaps when it comes to Archie, too.
Arguably, it’s the warm aesthetic and hi-tech production value which is arguably the most impressive element of Phaedra. Each setting in Lamford’s box is gorgeously detailed, scene changes are sometimes accompanied with classy projections featuring dialogue from Sofina’s father, and to refer back to the warmth point: if there’s not an auburn feel to the environment, then there’s a claustrophobic stuffiness instead. Mist clogs up one setting in the box, and another sees it turned into a bush field of crops. It seems too easy to describe this production as ‘cinematic’, but when it is so unrelenting and expansive in its world building, it’s more than justified.
It’s indisputably of the same calibre as The Lehman Trilogy by being just as captivating and dramatic – and that’s before one considers the similar set design.
Phaedra is now playing at the National Theatre until 8 April. Audio described and captioned performances take place on 1 and 5 April respectively.
Production Images: Johan Persson.