It’s all Greek to me: Bell Shakespeare’s Phèdre

Untranslatable is a word often used to describe Racine’s plays, we are told in the program to Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, Phèdre. And watching the play, part of me cannot help but wish it had stayed thus, however much it hurts me to admit it. Based on the Greek myth of Phèdre, Racine’s play is a downward spiralling tragedy, much like Shakespeare’s own Macbeth and Hamlet, until at the end, tragedy befalls everyone, and Theseus and Théramène are left to pick up the pieces.
If Anna Cordingely’s set was anything to go by, the production should’ve been sumptuous. A decaying room, perhaps in a French palace, it consisted of an elongated octagonal room with the front walls removed – stairs tiled in black and white, six large windows at the rear, a ceiling with a hole smashed through it (due to a god’s intervention, perhaps?), a chaise divan and two similarly-upholstered chairs… a picture of faded elegance. The space was lit effectively by Paul Jackson in bolts of harsh fluorescence, gentle gold, and electric blue, and added to the former grandeur of the play’s location. Kelly Ryall’s sound design and ‘score’ were both effective in unsettling the audience from the opening salvo of scratching susurrations to the final blackout, almost as if the gods somewhere were spinning disks of thunder and lightning. It was used in scene breaks too, and in tiny unobtrusive blurts when a character entered via the stairs, and though my description of it sounds somewhat disparaging, it was one of the production’s strongest points, and complemented the set in its depiction of a once-faded decadence, something familiar now in disarray, beyond repair. However, when you added the cast – headed by Catherine McClements as Phèdre – something inherently 'magical' disappeared.

I don’t know what it was exactly that made it feel empty. Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Alexandrine couplets has been described as “muscular” and “bloody” by director Peter Evans, and on the page it seems so – short, succinct sentences, very to the point, yet harshly poetic; beautiful in a brutal way. But when spoken by the cast, it sounded flat, like slabs of falling plaster crashing around you, words swirling in the air like dust; phrases jump out at you, certainly, but nothing seems to stick. The costumes, also by Anna Cordingley, while contemporary and unobtrusive, tended to blend too much into the set itself – there was no distinction between Hippolytus’ dark grey T-shirt and jeans and the black box of the Playhouse’s bare walls. Peter Evans’ direction, too, seemed to lack the robustness and muscularity with which he infused his Macbeth and Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare previously. His almost-trademark physical tics – borne out of Meyerhold’s bodily alphabet of movement-based responses to the text – seemed incongruous and ill-suited to Racine’s play. The play started with all the characters diversely arranged around the set – some seated, others standing, some curled on chairs, others on the ground or stairs – while Hippolytus and Théramène talked, to each other yet out to the auditorium. Being a version of a Greek tragedy, there is the natural adherence of characters to declaim or speak as a Chorus, and that is a given convention which we accept and are prepared to run with; but as the first scene draws out longer and longer, without any variation, one’s concentration and investment in the performance style begins to wane. The cast too seemed to suffer from a rigidity and staticness perhaps borne out of an interpretation of Meyerhold’s technique or an influence of the Greek tragedy mode; there was very little movement around the set for great swathes of text, or when they did move, it was around in a small contained area. Hippolytus seemed too full of adolescent angst and rage, Aricia too staid; Théramène, Ismène and Panope were barely seen on stage, and Oenone seemed to be a sycophantic confidant to Phèdre (we are told she is her nurse in the program), while it was Theseus with whom a breath of movement and life was brought into the space. In his grey suit and closely cropped hair and beard, he was perhaps the most unobtrusive of the cast, but his performance tics of a Richard III-esque hunched-back-and-dropped-shoulder, a kind of ape-like swagger as he wrought the vengeance of the gods upon his son seemed misplaced for a king.
This all sounds a bit too cruel, and it’s not easy to write this about one of Sydney’s continually strong companies, but perhaps the stars were not altogether aligned for this production, perhaps the Fates had other ideas. I don’t think that there is anyone particularly to blame for it either, it perhaps stems from the text itself perhaps as far back as Racine’s version of 1677. Phèdre is a hurricane, as destructive as she is “emotionally incontinent,” yet through Racine-via-Hughes’ dense slabs of prose, she comes across as often hysterical, singularly pitched with no real variation or depth. Yes, she is a controlling and manipulative character, that much is certainly evident, but as for her reasons why she did what she did, it all gets a bit obfuscated and eventually we learn that it was through sheer jealousy, though that does not excuse her behaviour at all.
Like Bell Shakespeare’s delicious robust and Grand Guignol-esque production of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi last year, Phèdre makes you realise just how resplendent and innately tuned to the human condition Shakespeare was. “[Racine] was a genius,” McClements said in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. “He was so disciplined. The French audiences must have considered Shakespeare shambolic.” However ‘shambolic’ Shakespeare must seem to the French – and just as untranslatable as Racine is to us – there is still a gentle (and sometimes fierce) compassion to his works, a sense of wonder and understanding and real-ness imbued within every line and character, within every scene, sonnet, poem and play. While Phèdre and all the rest of them put their faith in the gods I, like Shakespeare, choose to put my faith in humanity, and I think that’s a safe place to be for now.

Theatre playlist: 15. Zanstra, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

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