Phaedra ★★★★ National Theatre | Feb 1 - Apr 8, 2023

The lineage for this particular Phaedra is a bit unclear, and one doesn't see much of the Euripides, Seneca and Racine cited on the programme. However, the classical references are not really necessary for this narrative of a shadow cabinet politician who becomes involved in a transgressive relationship with the young son of her former lover. While the story recalls the recurring classical concern about the destructive power of passion and its potential to overthrow reason and the social norms, it is also a riff on class-bound champagne socialists who pretend to defend, but actually exploit and cultivate no insight into other cultures. Despite being surrounded by a husband, best friend and lover from various cultural backgrounds, the protagonist, Helen, does not really see them, nor does she express much curiosity about them beyond her own needs. Phaedra opens with Helen, and her family in the glass cage of their luxury flat. They are all talking over each other, and this babble of competing ego needs is only silenced (and finally will be destructively simplified) by the appearance of Sofiane, the son of Helen's deceased Moroccan lover. Like the god Dionysus, the coming of this stranger from the East will overturn lives and bring out passions that will destroy both Helen's family and her career. The parallel with the previous destruction of her lover's family by that passionate affair offers a striking sense of nemesis that would no doubt have been satisfying to a classical sensibility. As the mother and politician who is destroyed by her own passions and self-absorption, Janet McTeer puts in an award-worthy performance, and Paul Chahidi is pitch perfect as the self-effacing Hugo who changes his name and takes on the role of a diplomat to conform to the world which he must now negotiate. His understated performance is a fine counterpart to McTeer's display of driven egotism. Full marks also to Mackenzie Davis as daughter, Isolde, and Archie Barnes as son, Declan. In a well-honed portrayal, Assaad Bouab as Sofiane successfully conveys both the required mystery and an engaging vulnerability of his character. Whether he is seeking revenge or affirmation remains intriguingly in doubt. However, almost upstaging all of the extraordinary cast are the incredible sets of Chloe Lamford. Her brilliantly evocative and amazingly realistic backgrounds take on a life of their own. This is a Phaedra offering a comment on human nature that echoes the concerns of classical drama but which also sharply points out the curious hypocrisy informing some current political attitudes. It is well worth a viewing.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Johan Persson.

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