Review: Phaedra, National Theatre

Janet McTeer blazes in Simon Stone’s Greek tragedy-inspired new play

“Maybe this is our curse, I hope to God not”

It’s right there in the credits for Phaedra – “a new play by Simon Stone, after Euripides, Seneca and Racine” – it’s ultimately Greek tragedy-adjacent but it is really a cutting, contemporary drama that has as much comedy as it does Chorus. It’s a small adjustment of expectation required but one which pays dividends as Stone’s slick production revolves on the Lyttelton stage.

Housed in Chloe Lamford’s spinning glass house, the world of this Phaedra – renamed here as Helen – is the moneyed London elite, blithely on show to all and sundry. Helen is a shadow minister, married to diplomat Hugo and the banter with their precocious kids is something to behold in a highly verbose opening scene which introduces the engaging but somewhat toxic family dynamic.

Matters are complicated with the arrival of Sofiane, the son of Helen’s Moroccan former lover who died in a car crash. Just a boy when it happened, he’s now the age that lover was when he died and that awakens something deep within the self-involved Helen, who then throws herself into a monumentally destructive affair, the far-reaching impact of which shatters the worlds of so many in her orbit.

Janet McTeer is phenomenal as Helen, a post-menopausal woman relishing this sexual reawakening and unconcerned with its potential ramifications. Paul Chahidi mines a tragicomic vein perfectly as the long-suffering Hugo, dealing with his own identity issues; Mackenzie Davis shimmers as their adult daughter Isolde, suffering in a marriage where everyone loves her husband except for her; and French-Moroccan Assaad Bouab is swarthily effective as Sofiane, barely dealing with the turbulence from meeting the woman so involved in his emotional and sexual development as a boy and her daughter who looks eerily like her mum did back then…

Stone’s script is wonderfully, bitingly savage as various configurations of these characters tear lumps out of each other but there is a slight sense of an overstuffed grab-bag of themes which aren’t necessarily all fully fleshed out. And given how the restaurant scene that precedes it is jet black-comedy at its finest (clock the kid recording it on his phone!), the way the final scene pivots into full-on Greek tragedy doesn’t quite land, despite the ferocious multilingual brilliance of Sirine Saba’s work and stunning visuals.

Lamford’s design is awesomely good, and brilliantly wrangled by the stage management team – her glass cage transforming from London living rooms to rural reedbeds, Birmingham bedsits and Moroccan mountainsides – the necessarily lengthy scene changes covered by atmospheric voiceovers from Sofiane’s deceased father offering his own perspective on the past. It might not quite have the soul-crushing brilliance of his Medea or Yerma but with Janet McTeer blazing at the head of this superb cast, Simon Stone’s Phaedra earns its place with the other interpretations of this enduring myth.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Phaedra is booking at the National Theatre until 8th April

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *