Thursday, 23 May 2013

Phèdre, Bell Shakes, May 23, 2013 ***

Written by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes
Bell Shakespeare production 
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, May 22 until June 2, 2013 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 23 
Stars: ***
 The review will not be published in, and was not written for Herald Sun. KH
Racine’s 17th century French tragedy may be based in Ancient Greek mythology, but Bell Shakespeare’s version of Phèdre shares its themes with soap operas: incest, infidelity, chastity and a woman’s lust for a younger man.

Catherine McClements is brittle and traumatised as Phèdre, the distraught wife of King Theseus (Marco Chiappi), who is driven to distraction by her long-standing, secret passion for her stepson, Hippolytus (Edmund Lembke-Hogan).

When her husband is proclaimed dead after a six-month absence, Phèdre confesses to her nurse, Oenone (Julie Forsyth) that her unnamed sickness is lust for Hippolytus, the stepson she abused and exiled for years.

With Oenone’s encouragement, Phèdre rashly and fervently declares her lusty obsession to the horrified and chaste Hippolytus – just before Theseus returns, alive and well. As in any Greek tragedy, it all goes horribly wrong from there.

Ted Hughes’ 20th century translation loses the lyricism and rhyme of Racine’s original, but makes the meaning more concrete and modern.

Director, Peter Evans, confines the actors in a claustrophobic, ruined, ancient portico (Designed by Anna Conrdingley, lighting by Paul Jackson), with a roof that is open to the elements and the ire of the Gods.

Evans’ production begins with a painfully static and problematic opening act in which the actors barely move and never address each other directly, using an understated vocal style that works against the dramatic.

Fortunately, the following acts contain more emotional and physical action and McClements, Forsyth and Chiappi all deliver impassioned speeches that erupt with blistering or poignant emotion.

McClements is a prowling, unpredictable feline, made wretched by unrequited lust and finally made devastated by blazing jealousy and vengeance.

Chiappi’s presence is powerful as the wronged father and betrayed husband, as he paces the stage with angry dignity.

As the loyal Oenone, Forsyth finds moments of humour to balance the affecting scenes when her beloved mistress accuses and exiles her, and Bert Labonte portrays the knowing depsair of Théramène.

Lembke-Hogan’s Hippolytus is less effective, being constantly surly and sullen and lacking the princely dignity and control needed for Hippolytus. Similarly, as Hippolytus’ betrothed, Aricia, Abby Earl seems uncomfortable with her character, as well as the language and style of the play.

Evans’ production has limited dynamic and emotional range and Hughes’ script lacks the poetry of Racine’s original, but this production gives us the chance to see Racine who rarely performed in English in Australia.

By Kate Herbert
Catherine McClements as Phèdre,
Marco Chiappi Theseus
Emund Lembke-Hogan (hippolytus)
Abby Earl (aricia)
Julie Forsyth (onenone)
Bert Labonte (théramène)
Olivia Monticciolo (ismène)
Caroline Lee (panope, phèdre understudy)

By Kate Herbert

by Jean  Racine
translated by Ted Hughes
director Peter Evans
designer Anna Cordingley
lighting Paul Jackson
composer Kelly Ryall
assistant director Fleur Kilpatrick


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