There are many ways to update a classic text; you can relocate it to another time period where the play’s themes and political subtext can find accord with the tone of a later era – a popular option for Shakespeare adaptations where alternative period settings seek to reinforce universal truths about human nature in the writer’s work; you could make drastic cuts to the dialogue to create a leaner and more pointed story or replace some of the text with alternative forms of expression as Ivo van Hove often does with film, or dance and movement as Frantic Assembly have done with their recent Othello. But Simon Stone makes theatre a little differently, by creating a new contemporary version of the story using the shape of the plot and its messaging but in an entirely new and accessible language.
His adaptation of Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016 was a triumph, a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s original play into a contemporary obsession with female reproduction and the expectation to be a mother. Staged in a confining glass box, Stone created an original scenario onto which he successful grafted Lorca’s story to understand the endless pressures placed on women of childbearing age to conform to both external and internalised expectations to procreate. Stone’s sensitive but balanced production was a huge success from a writer who understands and so well represents the complexities of womanhood on stage, with his central character able to reach across generations and link to Lorca’s original.
Now, Stone turns his attention to another important literary woman, Phaedra as imagined by Euripides, Seneca and Racine and given a modern retelling in a production at the National Theatre written and directed by Stone. With its Press Night later this week, Stone’s production has a number of technical issues to resolve, complicated changes that are creating overlong pauses between some of the scenes and intruding on the pace of the show which hopefully repeated performance during the preview period will resolve. Nonetheless, Stone’s vision for Phaedra is riveting in a piece that explores mature sexuality, fantasy and generational competition between mother and daughter.
Phaedra in this production is relocated to the modern day where she is the head of a wealthy and consumerist household. A senior politician in the Shadow Cabinet, Phaedra, renamed Helen (a pointed choice given the tragedy of beauty and masculine aggression to follow) has what appears to be the perfect life with two children – a grown-up daughter, Isolde, who is married and a teenage son Declan – as well as a devoted and supportive husband and father of the children, Hugo, who is of Iranian descent. Stone creates an instant sense of their life, of white privilege and self-satisfaction, of believing themselves to be liberal, people of the world but with a surface engagement not only in the political consequences of their lifestyle but also in their relationship to one another, only they don’t yet realise it.
So, Stone puts them in another glass box where we can watch it all go wrong. And as the light’s come up on Chloe Lamford’s quite spectacular set, in the first minute of the show, the audience has all the information it needs to understand this family. The living room and kitchen visible at the start is expensively and tastefully decorated with marbled surfaces, minimal but chic furnishings and a deference to showcasing their taste that Lamford notes may be filled with life but is ultimately hollow. The spectacular coup de theatre some way into this first scene is quite remarkable as the glass case revolves showing its cubed structure for the first time and a plush home that turns into a bedroom and en suite that characters can fully circumnavigate during conversation. This perfect stage picture is something Stone is about to shatter.
Having established who Helen/Phaedra is, Stone starts to bring her to life and in doing so teases out all kinds of complex responses that explore female sexuality and fantasy. The arrival of Sofiane – the son of her former lover Achraf – is the catalyst for the inevitable disaster that plays out across the following hours of performance and Stone creates an added layer by recasting this relationship, and making Sofiane a non-relation. This helps to generate some of the empathy that Helen must elicit while also keeping just enough inappropriateness to make the relationship between them a little uncomfortable and not only due to their age gap.
Stone’s Helen wallows in a form of lost fantasy, the chance to rekindle a ghost of passion with a lover who died in a car accident that left her unable to resolve her feelings for him. Playing those out with his son, who she knew as a young child, creates a kind of substitution in her mind. And while the affair with Sofiane is incredibly passionate, reawakening a side of Helen that she had thought dormant in her long marriage to the less inspiring and over-familiar Hugo, a danger arises when she repeatedly references Achraf, showing the extent to which the two men merge in her mind as Helen is transported back to a carefree time in her life that she desperately wants to recapture.
This father-son dynamic is then mirrored in an equivalent mother-daughter perspective in which Sofiane also begins an affair with Isolde who then leaves her mild husband Eric for the man she knows is having an affair with her mother. The younger woman is also besotted by a fantasy about this stranger that she barely knows, struck by his different conversation from the first encounter in Helen’s house and reading deeper feelings into discussions and meetings they have offstage. Isolde too is projecting a romantic fantasy onto Sofiane who likewise replicates his childhood desire for Helen with her daughter, with Stone creating a complicated but credible series of projections in which none of the characters see one another as they really are.
But there is an important political dimension here too that comments on the impressionistic exoticism with which both Helen and Isolde see Sofiane, a reductive overlaying of his complex heritage and agency that prioritises their romantic and sexual needs above his existence as a real person – a point made so well in the final Act in which a visit to Morocco finally gives the audience a greater understanding of this man and his needs. That Phaedra returns repeatedly to the memory of Helen’s time in Morocco with Achraf is important, and through the fog a picture of this past relationship emerges, one of a group of Oxford-educated intellectuals enjoying a tourist’s perspective on the country and expecting it to meet their cliched expectations, suggesting Helen’s engagement with reality was limited even then as well as her capacity to lie to herself about her own desirability.
That this mutual fantasy becomes the basis for sexual jealousy and competition between mother and daughter is at the root of the tragedy that ensues, while Sofiane’s own muddied desires also make him a more rounded character. Stone works hard to ensure the audience don’t see this man the way that the women do, providing extra layers of Moroccan politics that allow him to clash with Hugo over more than his wife, while the masculine aggression stemming from a need to possess or even exceed what his father had runs through Sofiane’s motivation and emotional responses – feelings that become increasingly confused as his relationship entanglements begin to suffocate him.
A set-piece moment immediately after the interval where this all plays out at a restaurant birthday gathering for Helen is extremely effective, as the quietly sniping birthday girl who misses her now errant lover slowly brings the party to its knees and reeks havoc in all of her relationships, the consequences of which play out across the remainder of the story. The trajectory from smug, confident politician at ease with herself through a desperate illusory passion to destructive rage is something Stone manages particularly well, and, as he did with Yerma, the writer increases the tension, the personal need and the stakes bit by bit as his characters lose any sense of control, giving themselves over to pure emotion.
Structurally, Stone takes the same approach as he did with Yerma with time leaps between each scene in which the audience must infer all that has happened in the interim, but each time the characters appear before us, the stakes are considerably higher and there is further for them all to fall. Scenes appear suddenly out of the blackness as though a light has been flipped on and a key moment is illuminated for the audience before it too fades to black and another takes its place. In between, Stone inserts a tense musical composition by Stefan Gregory than creates a sense of anticipation mixing vocal ululations with classical and North African tones to reflect and guide the audience’s changing perspective on the story and it’s thematic implications.
It doesn’t all work and – technical issues of the early run aside – there is a lack of clarity in the long penultimate scene that would benefit from a little tightening and rewriting. This is a very different and decisive moment in the play, where all the romance and clutter of the jumbled sexual relationships has been swept aside and the action decamps to the snowy roads of Morocco where the UK characters seek Sofiane once more and Helen decisively confronts her past. Much of this dialogue is spoken in French and Arabic with slightly out of sync subtitles (which will be rectified), yet the consequences for Sofiane are a little muddy and not as clearly expressed as perhaps they could be. It is a long scene with multiple conversations but it’s not always clear where lies and misdirection are being used to defer Helen and if all of what we’re told in multiple languages is true. This is a pivotal scene for Helen, a moment when the scales fall from her eyes and she sees a reflection of herself so it’s important that the production can find the clarity it needs to make her fate really powerful.
The National’s production is suffering from the practicality of its genuinely magnificent set, and while the structure of the Young Vic space meant Yerma‘s pacing could be assisted by the use of a treadmill to carry sets on and off at speed in the darkness, the nature of the Lyttleton space and the level of realism that Lamford and Stone have chosen make this a far more cumbersome process to effect. When locations appear they are incredible, a testament to the ingenuity of the National’s in-house workshops but a couple of scenes could be simplified, made more representative in order to facilitate the swifter scene changes Phaedra needs to maintain its momentum and to showcase the interesting scenic approach that Stone employs so well.
The actors though are already well ahead of the play’s logistics creating an immersive and compelling story as soon as the lights go on. Janet McTeer finds incredible range in Helen/Phaedra, a woman whose confidence and self-satisfaction is at its height during the early part of the show. But she also has an excessive sexual confidence, a certainty that men should respond to and fulfill her regardless of her marital status, so when Sofiane comes along her ‘right’ to pursue him and the possessiveness she reveals is all consuming. McTeer also connects Helen’s physical expression to the image of the woman she once was (and is still in her head), driving a single-mindedness that blocks out other people’s emotions or needs, failing to listen when they speak and unable to subvert her own desires to support others.
Making his UK stage debut, Assaad Bouab is something of an enigma as Sofiane, a character whose ‘otherness’ underscores the drama, making him both an object of exotic allure to the women but also a man struggling to define himself. A process of loss bubbles through Bouab’s performance as the character tries to reconcile a paternal resentment and a kind of jealousy, coveting the things his father had but destroying them the moment he finally has them. Bouab is particularly impressive at reflecting on Sofiane’s disarranged mind as the multiple secrets and expectations lead to a dramatic conclusion.
Supporting the leads, Paul Chahidi is particularly good as Hugo, a seemingly lightweight personality at first, a figure of fun than Helen is easily able to cuckold, but Chahidi finds sympathy and depth as the story unfolds. Mackenzie Davis as Isolde echoes the selfishness of Helen as mother and daughter play our a similar life pattern, determined to follow their own desires regardless of the consequences, while John Macmillan as her husband Eric fits into a Hugo-like role, a nice man who is easy to betray but the better person in the longer term. Helen’s political life is given context by friend Omolara (Akiya Henry) who attends personal functions and becomes Helen’s main confidant but she finds their connection one-sided.
Stone’s play has so much potential, meaning if the technical and pacing issues can be resolved, it could be a very powerful production indeed. Phaedra is a contemporary reworking of a well-known tale that fits its new context extremely well and with an understanding of the evolution of female sexuality that has an affecting and poignant resonance. Most of all Phaedra is about the tragedy of self-delusion and the failure to the see the world and other people as they truly are.
Phaedra is at the National Theatre until 8 April with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog