When Bell Shakespeare deviates from the master, you know there’s a good reason. From Ancient Greek myth via Euripides, through Seneca’s Rome, past Racine in France and finally to Ted Hughes in England, the story of Phèdre has naturally developed along the way. Yet it remains as horrifying and compelling as ever – a step-mother accusing her innocent step-son of rape, just to hide her own burning desire for the son of her husband. Not quite everyone dies, but it remains very much a tragedy in the Greek style.
This version of the Phèdre was written in French by Jean Racine, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries across the English Channel. Racine’s classical education and love of Ancient Greek theatre – not to mention a talent for his language – made him renowned during his own life for the quality of his theatrical retellings. Then the story made the trip across to England, to be blessed by the talents of later English master – Ted Hughes, who translated the French original into modern English in 1997.
But what good is a wealth of history unless the play can stand on its own? And this is where its true value is proven. Its theatrical brilliance lies in how the words translate directly into understanding – the audience doesn’t get bogged down in comprehension, and instead bears witness to all the problems and passions that plague the characters.
Bell Shakespeare’s staging combines many great elements, including a visually effective set, and a fantastic soundscape that lies just below our attention yet works constantly to enhance the atmosphere.
I went into this production because I enjoy Greek mythological classics and retellings. I left the production focused only on the performance of Catherine McClements in the title role. McClements somehow creates a Phèdre who makes sense to us; she takes a confusing mess of contradictions and shows us how such a woman could actually exist in the here and now. What a delightful surprise that was, and what a tribute to the script, to the director Peter Evens, and to this woman’s own remarkable talent.
Compared to McClements, the rest of the cast is somewhat overshadowed, however Julie Forsyth, playing Phèdre’s pitiable (or detestable?) nurse and confidant, offers an excellent match and balance in energy to McClements. The scenes between Phèdre and Hippolytus, played by Edmund Lembke-Hogan, are also powerful with energy and passion, and precipitate a delicious shift in focus from speech to action. There is much talent apparent on stage, and I’m sure this will shine ever more brightly as the season gets underway.