Phaedra in the Plural
after Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad and J. M. Coetzee
Barbican Theatre | London
directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski
In the run-up to the EU referendum, the presence of such a quintessentially French cultural institution as the Odéon-Théatre de l'Europe brought a special resonance to the Barbican, offering a timely reminder of the languages, cultures and collective history that the UK is currently considering divorcing. Indeed, three and a half hours later, the evening concluded, after prolonged applause, with Isabelle Huppert's emotional plea "All Europe loves you. Stay with us!” Cue greater applause.
The imminent separation (if it proves thus) also brought to mind previous Phaedras I'd witnessed. Three of them and all British - very British. None more so, a mere forty-one years ago, than Diana Rigg's imperious queen of the Raj in Tony Harrison's great Phaedra Britannica - his relocation of Racine's classical drama to Colonial India, where an upright Rigg, as the Governor's wife, is undone by her love for her husband's hapless half-caste son. All British hauteur and condescension, before an emotional cataclysm and a bitter revenge. Very Dame Diana. A memorable experience for a music student on a 50p ticket to the National Theatre's original Old Vic home - in those more relaxed days before student loans and hard work.
No less British was Dame Janet Baker's world première performance of Britten's solo cantata Phaedra, which I experienced in Aldeburgh a year later. All dignity and poise, supporting controlled but intense expression. All very Dame Janet. And then, more recently, there was Sarah Connolly's rather grand yet touching portrayal in Glyndebourne's irreverent take on Rameau's baroque extravaganza Hippolyte et Aricie.
So, what of the Barbican show? To state the bleedin' obvious, Isabelle Huppert's three-in-one Phaedra(s), under Krzysztof Warlikowski's direction, is not a La Manche away from the British divas, but a Continent apart. Huppert’s intimidating triple guises from an ageing iconic porn star to a love-stricken modern day royal to an intellectual femme-fatale were exquisite transformations through the help of French couture houses - Dior, Givenchy and Saint Laurent. One could easily have mistaken the opening sequence of the play as prelude to Hedi Slimane’s catwalk show at Saint Laurent.
A vast, stark, walled, industrial-chic space (designed by Malgorzata Szczesniak), with only a sink and shower as fixtures and fittings, is filled (as it had to be) by one of the most virtuosic and extravagant displays of the actress's art that British audiences could ever have experienced.
From a barn-storming display of passion, hysteria and, finally, lust in the opening personification, taken from the Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad's conception based loosely on the original Euripides and Seneca, to a cooler, steelier, but subtly unhinged protagonist in a re-working of Sarah Kane's 1996 play Phaedra's Love, to her chameleon-like transformation into a self-possessed, self-regarding egoist of a writer who suddenly slips into the emotional abyss of her subject matter, taken from the 2003 tale Elizabeth Costello by South Africa's Nobel laureate, J. M. Coetzee.
Warlikowski’s complex staging is dramatically enhanced through 80s punk rock music and intensely effective avant-garde sound design by Pawel Mykietyn. A live video projection (by Denis Guéguin), often uses to project the close-up of the actress, has a sync issue which is a tad irritating while Felice Ross’ hauntingly atmospheric lighting deserves full marks.
A “tour-de-force” barely does Huppert's astonishing performance justice. And, as planets to the sun, the cast revolved supportively around her (a notable performance by Andrzej Chyra) – with the exception of a celebrated belly-dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), whose irritating presence and sexual contortions might have been designed to outrage the typical Brexiteer.
photo | ©Pascal Victor