Phaedra(s) - Barbican Theatre Review

Sex, death and complicated family relationships are the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) had all three. Times three. Co-produced by the Barbican and Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, as part of LIFT 2016, Phaedra(s) presents three tellings of the famous Greek myth: firstly Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad’s, then Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, and lastly Nobel Prize-winning South African author J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.

A full-on 3hr40min show, Isabelle Huppert as the three Phaedras shows awe-inspiring stamina, giving consistently intense, physical performances for each of the manifestations, which were at times exhausting to even watch. Staged as a multi-media, multi-medium piece, combining theatre, dance, music, film, projection and intense soundscapes, Warlikowski’s vision teetered between incredible and insufferable. Fitting for a Greek tragedy, but not necessarily the most enjoyable way to spend a Saturday night at the theatre. I can cope with long (Robert Lepage’s 6 hour Dragon Trilogy is possibly the best piece of theatre I’ve even seen), but the challenge of staging the same piece three times in a row, although an interesting academic exercise, is not made easier by the choice of play. Phaedra herself is not always easy to relate to emotionally, surrounded by unsympathetic characters, and determined to have sex with her step-son. Hopefully not a situation many members of the audience can relate to! As a Greek myth, there is an implicit assumption the audience will already know the plot, and thus the purpose of the piece would seem to be in its theatrical manifestation, and the distinctions it draws between the various Phaedra’s of the different texts.

Although the opening song and dance sequence was powerful and made immediately explicit the themes of power and desire interwoven throughout the whole evening, Mouawad’s Phaedra was, for me, the least convincing and the least successful. The hyperbolic, poetic text was dense and although rich with some beautiful imagery, it was hard to read the surtitles and still be able to enjoy the full theatrical experience on stage. Conversely, I did at the same time feel there was an inherent logic to the French language production of the text, as if it was somehow more appropriate for the strong sentiment. If Huppert had been writhing on the floor screaming “I burn, I burn” in English, I might have felt even more uncomfortable. In French it was legitimately dramatic, romantic; I felt like I was at the opera.

After watching Phaedra disembowel a dog, have sex with her step-son and hang herself, we move on to Kane’s Phaedra, and the most interesting and well-drawn section of the evening’s Phaedra(s). I found this version of the narrative far more compelling; Kane writes for us a modern queen caught in a power-struggle of lust and revulsion with her bored, self-absorbed step-son, wanking into a sock and watching the shower scene from Psycho on a loop. In this reimagining, Kane gives greater emotional depth to her characters, which Huppert and Andrzej Chyra (as Hippolyte) portray chillingly.

JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello brings a dramatic change of tempo, and much needed light relief. Until it too descends into frenzied dance and emotive poetry. Huppert adds warmth and humour with her characterisation of Elizabeth, but a lot of the humour relies on a sophisticated knowledge of mythology and philosophy (including off-hand jokes about Kant), which highlights the audience demographic this piece is intended for.

Huppert excels at contrast: from powerful to vulnerable, sexy to pathetic, calm to erratic, normal to strange. Thanks to her phenomenal performance, Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) is an interesting and powerful production, if overly ambitious, exhausting and rather self-indulgent.

(c) Kate Massey-Chase 2016

Barbican reviewed 11/06/16

Author's review: