Instead, the family dinner that opens the show is going to bring her past crashing back: As a young woman she regularly travelled to Morocco, where she had an affair with a married local man; it ended when he died in a crash while she was also in the car.
When she last saw the man's son he was nine years old; now in his forties, Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) has moved to the UK, and wants to reunite with the woman he associates with memories of his dead father. This initial dinner party turns sour when it turns out they both remember him very differently, but they later make up - very much so, as Sofiane makes a pass at Helen, and he looks so much like her dead lover that she begins an affair with him. Unbeknownst to her though, so does her daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis,) whose marriage to Eric has fizzled out.
Although Stone's version of Phaedra eventually feels worth a look, it's certainly muddled, uneven, and baffling in what it's ultimately trying to say, and the jarring jumps in style between comedy and tragedy certainly don't help with the difficulty in pinning down an identity for it. This unevenness, as well as Stone's somewhat clumsy attempts to add shock value through sexual content and language that add a touch of the sweary soap opera, mean the show did get a number of big audience laughs at moments that were clearly intended to be serious; although I did get some added value from seeing the two women in the row in front looking at each other with raised eyebrows at certain developments like they were watching Love Island.
I'm still not sure why the three classical dramatists (why not throw in Sarah Kane while we're at it?) are credited as the inspiration rather than the original myth in general, since quite apart from the plot we certainly aren't getting stripped-back narrative in the style of ancient Greek theatre. The opening scene in particular is absolutely loaded with detail and fast-paced, not-entirely convincing dialogue, and I was grateful for the presence of Helen and Hugo's teenage son Declan (Archie Barnes,) whose eye-rolling reactions at least let us know the production isn't taking their platitudes and wellness-speak entirely seriously.
This Phaedra is also dominated, and hampered, by its design: We know from Yerma that Stone likes to enclose his actors in a glass box, and here Chloe Lamford gives him the revolving variant of that. It's striking, particularly when evoking the unused Birmingham office block where Sofiane is squatting, and does give the impression of putting these characters up for display, but it's also distracting: We occasionally get breaks from the action, in which Sofiane's father leaves him a recorded message in Arabic, with the translation projected onto a black screen that covers the stage; it's hard to shake the impression these are only there to cover up the lengthy, noisy scene changes. And what ends up in the glass box can be very odd - at one point all the characters wander through a field of dead corn, accompanied by Helen's colleague Omolara (Akiya Henry) for no obvious reason other than that the plot required it.
If more proof was needed that the show is cripplingly overdesigned, when the play eventually returns to Morocco and we get the late appearance of Sofiane's wife Reda (an underused Sirine Saba,) there are scenes spoken entirely in a mix of Arabic and French, requiring surtitles; except they're projected onto the revolving box, so the translations cheerfully slide offstage while you're trying to read them. For the final nail in the design's coffin, once the show's over it takes so long to get everyone out of the box and raise the curtain again, that by the time the actors line up to take their bows the audience have already got tired and stopped applauding.
There are highlights though: Ironically, in a tragedy, one of the best is the downright farcical scene in a restaurant where the truth all comes out very publicly - the little detail that a teenager (Rhys Bailey) at the next table is filming the whole thing on his phone is the cherry on top. And while the buildup might have been 90% Stone's own invention rather than based on the myth, Helen's rash actions when she feels scorned and their devastating consequences for Sofiane mirror the emotional climax of the original plays. There's also a lot of very strong performances whether in the more comic roles for Chahidi and Macmillan or the emotional heft from McTeer, Bouab and Saba. But the wild lurches in tone, and the way the design overwhelms the production, mean whatever Phaedra is trying to say struggles to get through.
PS: If London theatre is working its way through the cast of Call My Agent!, can we please arrange:
(a) that we next get the Roger Allam/Thibault de Montalembert Comedy of Errors the universe is crying out for, and
(b) once we've done the French Netflix shows, can we move onto the Spanish ones next? The cast of Élite's trousers won't drop themselves you know.
Phaedra by Simon Stone is booking until the 8th of April at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
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