Review: Phaedra(s), LIFT 2016 at the Barbican

“Va-t’en fous le camp ne me touche pas ne me parle pas reste avec moi.”

Funny story – I actually bought a ticket to see Phaedra(s) in Paris when it was first announced, such is the hold that Isabelle Huppert has over me. Naturally having done so, a few months later a short run at the Barbican was announced as part of LIFT 2016 and for once, I erred on the side of caution by opting not to head over to the Odéon–Théâtre de l’Europe and waiting for its arrival in the UK (something I didn’t do with Kings of War in Amsterdam…)

It probably helped that I had already made the trip to Paris to see Huppert once before, 2014’s Les Fausses Confidences crossed that boundary and I’m glad, for though there was much to appreciate in Phaedra(s), it is extremely challenging too. Stretched over 3 hours 40 minutes with just the single interval, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s multimedia-heavy production stitches together different versions of the story of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus who fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus, with predictably tragic consequences.

It’s a durational performance, in more ways than one, testing the patience from the off with a newly commissioned version from Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad that has clear intentions to shock but in the manner of a stroppy teenager, plenty of show but little of substance, as stylish as it may look in Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s sharply contemporary design. Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love fares a little better, a measure of darkly-veined humour sprinkled amidst the sex and violence being reprised in these twisted relationships.

Finally, the most effective part of the triptych is the selection of excerpts from JM Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello in which the titular academic discusses the Greeks with a colleague, using Racine’s Phèdre as an example to act out their theories on the sex and power dynamics between gods and mortals.Throughout we get dance from Rosalba Torres Guerrero, which adds little apart from doubt on Warlikowski’s judgement, and the cumulative effect is little short of, well, exhausting.

There’s fierce work from Huppert onstage, the screaming self-indulgence of the first part giving way to something much more emotionally considered and ultimately powerful in the final third, and her stage presence is such that one is inclined to be more forgiving than might otherwise be the case (a similar argument could be made for Cate Blanchett’s Big and Small, at this same theatre – just being real with you here!). And so Phaedra(s) can only really be recommended as a chance to see one of the most interesting actresses in the world, rather than as an exemplar of international theatre at its best.  

Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Pascal Victor
Booking until 18th June

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