Hotshot Aussie director Simon Stone’s 2016 Young Vic adaptation of Lorca’s ‘Yerma’ managed to score rapturous reviews while raising more than a few red flags. Billie Piper’s titanic performance in the title role was essentially so good that it transcended the play’s faults, but it was hard not to at least be aware that it suffered from naff dialogue and a failure to interrogate the inherent misogyny in Lorca’s play about a woman driven mad by childlessness.
‘Phaedra’ is billed as ‘after’ the tragedies by Euripides, Seneca and Racine, though unlike classic interpretations of the Phaedra legend, it’s not actually about a woman brought low by passion for her stepson.
Instead, Janet McTeer’s married MP protagonist Helen embarks upon a torrid affair with Assaad Bouab’s Sofiane, son of her late Moroccan lover Achraf. It’s fraught and weird, for sure. But it never feels like the taboo of quasi-incest. And despite McTeer’s undoubted charisma – the ‘Ozark’ star effortlessly turns on the expansive likability of a good politician – Helen remains almost entirely unsympathetic.
The inference is she acts how she does because she’s struggling with aging: not so much worrying about her physical body as sapped spiritually by a long marriage that has run its course, and dealing with residual guilt and longing over Sofiane’s late father. It’s a potentially rich seam. But Stone’s dialogue is too gauche and bombastic to give any real nuance to Helen’s feelings and actions. And even if you do feel sympathy in theory, we’re basically never shown any scenes of Helen not being awful. There’s no bitter irony to her downfall, and her affair with Sofiane really never comes across as anything other than an outrageous act of indulgence, a titanic expression of entitlement.
Neither functional as a comedy nor a tragedy
At points her total disregard for anyone else’s feeling is so absurd that it becomes laugh-out-loud funny. That’s surely intentional, but the tone is so perplexingly balanced that I wondered if Stone had actually written an overt comedy. In the first half, there are a genuinely amusing series of micro scenes set in a wheat field that pithily reveal the romantic discontent of Helen and her family, while the second half opens with a sequence set at Helen’s birthday that’s genuinely hysterical as her nerdy husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) finally loses patience with her and makes a staggeringly messy scene.
But Stone never commits to the bit, and ‘Phaedra’ is neither functional as a comedy nor a tragedy, but rather a sloppy melodrama with funny bits in it. Ultimately having us laugh at Helen does not help the play’s abrupt attempt to get serious at the end.
A crack cast paper over the gaps somewhat, but there’s a lack of character depth. Bouab has a zenlike appeal as Sofiane, but his blithe shagging of anyone who gets in his path reduces him to an inscrutable other, rather than an actual character – he’s an object of desire whose own morality is never interrogated.
Everyone else seems ill at ease in their own skin. Omolara (Akiya Henry), Helen’s Black MP BFF was raised by a white foster family and is struggling to reclaim her Yoruba roots. Hugo is Iranian: his wealthy family fled the revolution; Hugo isn’t his real name, something that goes from slight joke to point of bitter contention. Helen and Hugo’s daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) struggles with her identity as a sexual woman. And yet Stone never rustles up any particularly meaningful insight from this - he seems somewhat concerned about a stultifying middle class-ness overriding individuality, but I’ll be damned if it comes to a persuasive point.
And yes, he directs with a magpie stylishness. It’s performed in a big glass box! Which revolves! Chloe Lamford’s set looks cool. But underscoring the play’s woes are some technical problems – many of the scene changes take an agonisingly long time, accompanied by loud grinding noises.
The fact of the matter is that Stone’s ‘Phaedra’ doesn’t get close to achieving the emotional critical mass that his ‘Yerma’ did. McTeer is very watchable. But it’s not like Piper, where her performance was so volcanic it became the entire show. Without that magic, I can’t help but think Stone is left looking a bit like a poundshop Robert Icke - boldly rewriting a classic but without any of the invention or empathy to do anything other than diminish it.