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Phedre – Bell Shakespeare

Indulge your penchant for psychodrama with a taut, classical tragedy about love, lust and fate. Some stories transcend space and time and this one remains remarkably compelling in the context of contemporary life.
By Hilary Simmons
May 27, 2013
By Hilary Simmons
May 27, 2013

Forbidden love — so much more appealing than ordinary, feasible love. Centuries ago a Frenchman called Racine adapted a play by Euripides which British poet laureate Ted Hughes later spent the last few months of his life translating, perhaps as a sort of self imposed penitentiary act for not protecting his partner in poetry, Sylvia Plath, from her own passionately wrought fantasies. Hughes' highly regarded free verse translation of Phèdre has been adapted for the stage by the Bell Shakespeare Company.

The plot is a psychologically compelling, proper Greek tragedy complete with pathos, jealousy and screaming frustration. The character Phèdre is a cursed, cougar-esque queen afflicted with an all-consuming passion for her stepson Hippolytus — ignore the name, he's a handsome if diffident 'objet d'adoration'. Fatefully, Phèdre's husband Theseus is missing, presumed dead.

At the encouragement of her well-meaning nursemaid Oenone, Phèdre decides to confess her dangerous and libidinous obsession to the boy in the hopes that he will respond with equal passion. Instead, Hippolytus backs away from the raving madwoman in her stilettos and tight pants in horror, as his pursuer stumbles across the stage, half-crippled by her unrequited lust. It's an unfortunate time for Theseus to return unexpectedly home – literally from Hell – and hell hath no fury like a woman forced to think on the spot of how she became so visibly distressed. Phèdre accuses Hippolytus of rape and Theseus promptly invokes the power of Neptune to curse his son, who retreats quite understandably to the blonde and bare-footed Aricia with a view to intertangling limbs and lives.

Director Peter Evans highlights how our lives can become defined by destructive relationships – both with ourselves and with others – if we allow them to. From the scratchy heartbeat of the fitful soundscape to the frenzied intensity of an apparently powerful woman seeking control in a world where female control just isn't possible, it's easy to identify with her quest and subsequent failure to achieve fulfillment. Her powerlessness turns love into mania and passion into a destructive force. The male characters are victims, too; Theseus too readily believes his son is a rapist, perhaps because of his own philandering history. His realisation that he’s got it fatally wrong comes much, much too late.

Some stories transcend space and time and Phèdre remains a remarkably compelling psychodrama in the context of contemporary life. Anna Cordingley's set is as damaged as the characters hearts and Hughes' translation is lean, mean and lyrical. The most tragic thing about Phèdre is that she realises how the contamination of her consciousness is self-induced: the foregone conclusion of forbidden love.

Photo by Rush.

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