Friday, June 14, 2013

Phèdre by Jean Racine

Catherine McClements - Phèdre
Juli Forsyth - Oenone
Bert LaBonte - Théramène

Edmund Lembke-Hogan - Hippolytus
Abby Earl - Aricia

Phèdre by Jean Racine (1639-99), trans. Ted Hughes.  Bell Shakespeare directed by Peter Evans; designed by Anna Cordingley; composer: Kelly Ryall.  Sydney Opera House Playhouse June 6-29, 2013

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 12

Peter Evans has created an intense theatre experience of the tragedy of unfortunate misunderstanding and deliberate but understandable intrigue which, in this high drama, leads to deaths – by guilty suicide, pride and self-destructive bravado, and insurmountable mental stress.  Though the family concerned is of Ancient Greek royalty, mortals whose forebears are Olympian gods, it is not difficult to relate this story and the psychology to any modern family.  For Queen Phèdre this was absolutely her Annus Horribilis.  For our Queen Elizabeth this was 1992, just five years before the accidental death of Princess Diana.

For Bell Shakespeare, Evans brings a new style as well as a new interest in plays beyond the Shakespeare canon, this time from France where Racine was the major tragedian of the later 17th Century.  The experiment is a thorough success.

Be prepared to be frightened, as the theatre suddenly blacks out and loud alarums sound, at a level and clarity that the best of modern electronic sound systems can produce.  Attention is at once fixed and focussed on the spotlit unmoving figures on stage whose words, spoken with precision of imagery and emotion, tell us the story as each character sees it.  This is the style some call ‘presentational theatre’ which may well have been how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed, and was certainly the way the main characters were presented in Ancient Greek tragedies by, say, Sophocles or Euripides.

But Racine did not use the relieving comedy of Macbeth’s porter, nor the change of pace of a singing and dancing chorus as the Greeks had done.  His play takes the myth – of King Theseus (Marco Chiappi), his second wife Phèdre (Catherine McClements), her step-son Hippolytus (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and Theseus’ beautiful young captive Aricia (Abby Earl) – into an ever-deepening vortex of disaster: a black hole indeed for the King who was so famous for having succeeded in destroying the Minotaur with the help of Phèdre’s sister Ariadne, who provided the thread by which he was guided back to safety out of the labyrinth.

Racine’s ‘chorus’ consists of just four ordinary mortals – Oenone, Phèdre’s nurse (Julie Forsyth); Théramène, Hippolytus’ adviser (Bert LaBonte); and two messengers Ismène (Olivia Monticciolo) and Panope (Caroline Lee).  Each has an essential role in this drama as commentator, analyst and critical adviser, and Evans’ direction nicely judges the fine points of the relationships of each in the status positions they hold.

The result is that, in what is essentially story-telling with minimum action, relying almost entirely on quality of voice and spoken expression, every actor needs equal skills – and every actor comes up to the mark.

Yet it has to be said that Catherine McClements, Julie Forsyth and Bert LaBonte stood out for me, perhaps because their parts were given more emotional qualities in Ted Hughes’ script.

Hippolytus’ pride in self-restraint compared with his father’s womanising and monster-killing seems to soften his character, making him more hesitant in revealing his love for Aricia until the situation forces him into action, and making it surprising when Théramène describes how, reckless and without restraint, Hippolytus faces up to the monster created by Neptune which kills him – as Theseus had asked Neptune to do.  Hughes’ modern poetic language – almost pentameter in form – I think made it more difficult for Lembke-Hogan to establish the strength of aggression which comes through Racine’s basically four-beat couplet lines in French. 

A nice example is when Hippolytus exclaims, in response to Phèdre’s revelation of her love for him:

Dieux!  qu’est-ce que j’entends?  Madame, oubliez-vous
Que Thésée est mon père, et qu’il est votre époux?

For the other characters Hughes’ English heightens the poetic to good effect, and in the end, after LaBonte’s wonderful dramatic telling of how Hipploytus died and of Aricia’s mourning for her true love, we feel all the sympathy we should for the young couple, and satisfied that Theseus at last recognises his mistakes and gives Aricia her due.

The whole evening, in its almost monumental set yet with characters in modern dress, is fascinating for the linkage created beween the ancient and mythical, the Renaissance and Romantic, and the modern psychological life.  An intense experience, not to be missed – or easily forgotten.