Thursday, February 29

Phaedra – The National Theatre

Simon Stone’s take on this Greek Tragedy finds itself in a domestic setting, ostensibly a quintessentially British family sitcom. It feels familiar, from the witty, jesting Dad (Paul Chahidi), to the moody teenage son (Archie Barnes), the uptight, activist daughter (Mackenzie Davis) and the quirky son-in-law (John MacMillan). But in spite of the sharp back-and-forths and intellectual masturbation, the mother, Helen’s cool, detached demeanour belies an unsettling tension. The family eagerly await their guest, Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), the son of Helen’s dead Moroccan lover Ashraf. His arrival creates a seismic wave over the family, as he seems to exude a profound peace, intrigue and wisdom. When it becomes clear that Helen and Sofiane hold different versions of Ashraf’s death, Sofiane rages before leaving but later returns and becomes messily embroiled in the family.

I couldn’t quite make sense of what the play was trying to say in the moment but there were the overt themes of class, wealth and power. I now think it’s about a woman who is so detached from her feelings that her guilt transposes itself into an obsession with Ashraf, as she has never felt or refused to acknowledge any culpability in her life. Exchanges with her altruistic, Christian colleague centre solely around herself and there is self- indulgence in her misery and awful situation. Helen’s melodrama is credible in the modern scenario yet still captures the scope of a Greek epic. McTeer gives a stellar performance as Helen, conveying a coherent descent into obsession. The blood curdling shrieks reveal Helen’s terrifying inner void and McTeer conveys the opposing forces of complete self-servitude and her self-destructive longing.

Photo: Johan Persson

Bouab plays the worldly, charming Sofiane, who is evidently severely traumatised from his father’s affair with Helen. For a person of such seeming integrity, his motivations become unclear and confusing. Omolara (Akiya Henry) is the most likeable character in the play because of her moral rigour and stern, practical advice. Chahidi’s Hugo, a diplomat, is the (ultimately ineffective) glue holding the family together. His self-deprecating humour and constant wit is performed with masterful timing but his character was too much of a comic device in certain moments which didn’t seem truthful. Isolde, the daughter was earnest yet angsty, repulsed by her parent’s wealth and what they stand for. Davis subtly showed Isolde’s frustration eating away at her and the traits of Helen’s personality in her. Declan, the son doesn’t impact the plot much but ties the image of their family together as a stereotypical middle-class roadman. There is a running theme of adopting and learning about other cultures and styles and Declan is another example of this.

Chloe Lamford’s set is an elevated, rotating glass box that has a cinematic effect as it moves around with the characters. Settings include the family’s picture perfect marble countered kitchen, a restaurant for Helen’s birthday and a field with tall grass. With sharp blackouts and the absurdity of the scenes within the box, it felt episodic and there were particularly strong still images at the beginnings and ends of scenes enhanced by James Farncombe’s lighting design.

The horror of this play is in the realism of the family, their lifelike overlapping, simultaneous conversations set against the atrocity of the destruction that Helen causes. While the characters vilify each other, the play itself is impartial but critical of them, particularly of their wealth. The events serve as a microcosm of a society in which powerful people’s frivolities result in casualties which they gloss over. Certain messages within the play could be clearer but this is a clever adaptation, with lots of sharp humour and utopic visuals.

Playing until 8th April 2023, https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/phaedra/

Reviewer: Riana Howarth

Reviewed: 17th February 2023

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

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