Review: Phaedra, National Theatre - superb performances and distracting staging
Phaedra at the National Theatre started with writer/director Simon Stone making a speech about this being the first run-through. He asked for our indulgence if things didn't quite go smoothly, blaming himself for any issues.
During the opening scene, there was nothing noticeable, the problems came when there were scene changes and subtitles later on - but I'll come back to that because, at its core, this version of the Phaedra story and the performances are superb.
All the action takes place in a glass cube, similar to Yerma at the Young Vic, which Stone also directed. The story is transferred to modern Britain; Phaedra becomes 'Helen' (Janet McTeer), a politician and Oxford graduate from an affluent background.
Her husband Hugo (Paul Chihadi) is a diplomat of Iranian descent - he chose the name Hugo because no one could pronounce his Iranian name.
Helen and Hugo have a grown-up married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), and a 14-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes).
We find the family at home, along with Isolde's husband Eric (John Macmillan), teasing and bickering while preparing for the arrival of a guest for dinner. They talk rapidly, interrupting each other or having several conversations at once. It feels relaxed and uninhibited.
When their guest Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), arrives, the atmosphere changes; there is excitement, awkwardness, and curiosity. Sofiane is the son of a Moroccan man Helen had an intense holiday romance with when travelling with Oxford chums as a student.
Sofiane is the spit of his father, who died in a car crash while he was having his affair with Helen.
While not technically a stepson as in the original story, Stone instead has created a more complex dynamic.
You can picture Helen and her group of privileged pals getting stoned in Morroco, kidding themselves that they are immersing themselves in the culture. The lack of awareness and acute self-obsession will have terrible consequences all over again.
Helen has fixated on her former lover and the feelings that the relationship sparked. It has haunted her marriage, and Sofiane's appearance makes her greedy to reignite what she felt.
For Sofiane, there are unresolved issues with his father and his relationship with Helen, to which he was an eyewitness. Is he out for revenge, trying to recreate feelings of his own from the past or something else?
And then there is Isolde, whose marriage and relationship with Sofiane begin to mirror those of her mother.
Razor sharp script
Stone's script is razor sharp and fresh and performances naturalistic to the point where it feels almost voyeuristic to watch.
McTeer is superb - a confident, controlled woman flawed by emotions she'd given up on feeling again. Sofiane, in Bouab's hands, is complex and multilayered.
These aren't easy characters to like, but their story is, nonetheless, compelling and gripping. That is the strength of the script and performances despite the production problems.
One of the flaws in Stone's production is the overly complex set, resulting in very long scene changes. Very long - the play didn't finish until 10.45pm.
And while the fancy sets are nice to look at, the performances are strong enough that they aren't necessary. And some sets add nothing, such as a scene in a grassy field.
Another scene is set in a misty, snowy Morocco, which became a distraction from what was being said, particularly as the cube was also slowly rotating.
The prolonged blackout pauses between scenes confused, and the audience mistakenly broke into applause on two occasions, thinking it was the interval/end of the play. While the final scene ties up an additional loose end, would the play lose anything if it wasn't there?
Yerma, while staged in a glass box, had a minimal set, just a few items to indicate a change of location and something similar would serve here.
There were also problems with subtitles when some characters spoke French or Arabic. They weren't always in sync with the performances making it challenging to work out who was saying what. And there were a couple of occasions when the subtitles didn't appear.
The production will undoubtedly become slicker with more run-throughs, but I'm not sure how much quicker without some substantial changes.
Underneath all the staging embellishments, Phaedra is a cracking play. I'm giving the staging ⭐️⭐️ and the play ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Phaedra, National Theatre
Written by Simon Stone after Euripides, Seneca and Racine
Directed by Simon Stone
Running time - Officially, it was given as 2 hours 40 minutes, including an interval, but the first run-through was 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Booking until 8 April. For more information and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website.
Phaedra teaser trailer
The Elephant Song, Park Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 11 February
A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half, booking until 4 February (This production will transfer to the West End on 20 March)
Orlando, Garrick Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 25 February