Phaedra's Love

Wed 14th – Sat 17th March 2012


Natasha Tabani

at 01:01 on 15th Mar 2012



Phaedra’s Love is a subversive adaptation of classical tragedies – both Seneca’s Phaedra and Euripedes’ Hippolytos. The play is modernised, centred around the narcissistic Hippolytus and makes violence an explicit part of the action (it occurs offstage in Seneca’s original). Sarah Kane’s twisted depictions of the darker side of sexual fantasies manifest themselves as borderline incestuous relations between members of a Royal Family. She pitches characters with opposing natures against one another, focusing specifically on Phaedra’s obsessive love for her indifferent stepson and the tragic consequences of feeling too much and too little emotion.

The play begins promisingly. On stage we see the familiar image of a teenage boy, with his eyes glued to a television, sprawling on a sofa which is almost adrift on a sea of litter – empty pizza boxes, packets, bottles and so on. What is not so familiar is the harem of lingerie-clad girls who pose around him. To make matters eerily worse, the only noise which breaks the silence is the sound of Phaedra’s sobs somewhere beyond the audience. Moving to the backdrop of ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails, the girls begin to dance around him, each taking their turn to drape themselves over his inert form in an attempt to distract him from the TV.

In theory, this is a tense and powerfully charged scene with which to begin a play. Unfortunately, the attempts to entice Hippolytus by the Chorus girls were a little too tame compared to the sordid sensuality of Kane’s vision. While this may have been due to the director attempting to show their lack of appeal to Hippolytus (who engages compulsively in sexual acts without enjoying them), it came across as an emulation as opposed to an embodiment of the act of sexual seduction. Even more unfortunately, most of the ensuing sexual scenes were carried off in a similar way. Hippolytus’ masturbation scene, and acts of fellatio are skipped over quickly and without much feeling, movement or intensity. I honestly believe that in a play with such difficult themes these scenes needed to feel more ‘real’ and less like unfortunate and embarrassing necessities. However, taking into account that this is a student play catering for a student audience, they were not as bad as they could have been.

The violence, in contrast, was done well. Beginning with ‘tamer’ violence and outbursts of emotion, the narrative moves quickly towards scenes of explicit gore. Towards the end the play becomes a bloodbath, and a knife dripping with blood becomes an accessory to multiple acts of savagery. The canvas backdrop worked especially well – it was used to display a scenes-of-violence montage which mirrored and intensified the on-stage brutality as well as invoking the initial TV which was the constant focus of Hippolytus’ attention. Even more interestingly, the space behind it became a stage for a kind of dark shadow-puppetry, at separate times showing an open tomb and a graphic rape scene.

Despite its flaws, the overall spectacle was very entertaining. I was never bored, and even though the audience is not meant to empathise or even sympathise with the characters, they were captivating and carried the scenes well. The tones and emotional intensities of the actors were sustained and superbly executed, particulary the obsession and isolation of Phaedra (Annie Price) and the despair of her daughter Strophe (Bec Evans). Hippolytus (Toby Almy) himself was very convincing with his cold indifference and his nihilistic pursuit of destruction, or ‘excitement’, as he disturbingly terms it. The music – Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and Placebo – was complementary with its distortion and its capacity to merge sexuality and violence while maintaining associations with the "anarchistic teenager" image. The lighting was interesting in its uses of block colours to signify moods and its shifting shapes. All in all, I enjoyed watching the performance despite its setbacks, and would definitely recommend it to those interested in the subversive, the sordid and the extreme potential of theatre.


Jessica Reid

at 22:56 on 15th Mar 2012



The late Sarah Kane, famed for her masterpiece '4.48 Psychosis', also wrote the less well known 'Phaedra’s Love'. In it, she re-imagined the Hippolytus myth, as immortalised by Euripides. What if Hippolytus was not chaste, but rather possessed a ferocious sexual appetite – with no gender bias and a penchant for oral sex? What if he was not part of a group of close friends but instead fuelled by contempt for mankind? What if his mania for hunting was replaced by a chronic apathy, leaving him watching television all day, while getting fatter and fatter on junk food? In 'Phaedra’s Love', Kane created hilarious and scandalous motivations for Phaedra’s suicide and the note accusing Hippolytus of rape.

Toby Almy played Hippolytus. It was a brave performance of an intriguing but horrifying, morally bereft character. For the majority of the play, Almy was dazzling. He captured perfectly the duality of Hippolytus’ childlike yet cynical state. His chilling expressions during the reprehensible and frequent sexual activity was both mesmerising and terrifying. However, I was not convinced by the moments in which he showed kindness, for instance, comforting the orphaned Strophe (Bec Evans C). He did not have the same conviction as in the scenes where he was deemed a “heartless bastard” (another of Kane’s witty nods to the original myth, where he was of illegitimate birth.) Most memorable was his crazed look of euphoria, seconds before the women ripped him to death, Bacchae-style.

Phaedra was depicted by Annie Price. She was brilliant at balancing Phaedra’s desperation with the composure necessary for her status as Queen: this ever-present contrast would have immediately labelled her a loose cannon, had the frenzied weeping as the audience entered not been a clue! Price was in turns passionately bitter, passionately in love and passionately miserable. Her fiery performance contrasted wonderfully with Almy’s cool Hippolytus.

Miles Ng was very expressive as the duplicitous priest. Vee Sethu had the challenging task of developing a remarkable human depth for the clinical, cold Doctor and she partially achieved it. Tom Brada was engaging and frightening as the ambiguous Theseus. His horror and guilt when he realised he had raped and murdered his step-daughter was a fabulous irony – oh, the hypocrisy of these characters! Bec Evans C was very believable in the scene where she argued with her mother, Phaedra. Yet there was something lacking in her performance during Strophe’s dealings with Hippolytus. Maybe it was less about her acting and more that her character’s weakness seemed out of place and slightly annoying?

The use of a chorus, again linking back to the original Greek mythology, was an inspired decision, although the opening sequence was too long. The scene changes were also too frequent and very slow. Aesthetically, however, the production itself was of a very high standard. The soundtrack was atmospheric, the costumes were perfect, the set was interesting– particularly the white screen which was used to silhouette Phaedra’s corpse and the rape of Strophe. I left the theatre feeling revitalised – even in Kane’s version, catharsis from Greek Tragedy survives! Overall, 'Phaedra’s Love' was appalling and fascinating. It was totally captivating and I loved it.



K Smith; 15th Mar 2012; 12:01:26

This is a very well written review and bits of it are very accurate, however it does not appear that the reviewer has researched the play well, or even read it. As an audience member and someone who knows the play well (i directed it in Manchester last term) you critique the director's poor creation of the 'sordid sensuality of Kane's vision' - yet the opening harem scene is not even in Kane's play, this is obviously the director's vision of the pain of Phaedra's love for Hippolytus. Also, Kane has not (in any of her work) intended sex to be sensual - acts of fellatio are not intended to have 'feeling' and 'intensity' - sex bores Hippolytus, to him it is just another way of wasting time. This is a well written review and I agree with your other points, but the lack of research gives the wrong impression to readers, and potential audience members.

Natasha Tabani; 16th Mar 2012; 03:43:16

Thanks for your response – it’s really interesting to read. I thought I should clarify/expand upon a few of my criticisms:

Though the opening scene was not in the original, it should still have a sense of congruity with the rest of the script. While it did fit in, I felt it could have been improved if the girls had more sensuality to their postures, indicating that they were really trying to entice Hippolytus. This would have made his corresponding coolness and disinterest even more shocking. If they are obviously manifestations of Phaedra’s anxieties about her love, this perspective still stands.

I do acknowledge, even within the paragraph in which I discuss the sexuality, that the director is possibly trying to portray the sexual scenes from Hippolytus’ point of view and that this is why they don’t seem ‘sensual’. I also fully understand that he does not at all enjoy sexual acts. However, while expressing positive ‘feeling’ and ‘intensity’ towards such acts would be completely at odds with his character, the acts themselves in order to acquire a sense of reality needed to be more intense. To put it in slightly crude terms, an orgasm is a physical and chemical release, and, whether it is enjoyed or not, it always create changes in a person’s posture and facial expression. The masturbation scene was not long enough to be believable; there was no evidence of tension, build up and release. Equally, the ending of the priest scene seemed a little abrupt and unexpected.

I do not by any means intend to give the wrong impression to potential audience members, merely to present a balanced critique which gives both positive feedback and offers constructive criticism. I felt that the other elements of the play were done very well, and that this particular area let it down a little bit. I really enjoyed watching it and I would still recommend it, but I feel I have to give my honest impressions.

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