What’s this? Greek tragedy without draped women wailing at the opening? That’s right. In Michael Gow’s direction of Racine’s Phaedra for the QTC the opening is far out man.
A bare-chested, barefooted, leathery-legged Hippolytus is interrogated by his tutor Theramenes dresses like an associate professor from the ANU. Up from the lower deck steps a pearl-throated Oenone, the nurse, who is Queen Elizabeth II to a tee, from grey coiffure to dainty shoes, lemon-gold outfit and all. Then Queen Phedra emerges from the depths, clutching her tiara, like Princess Diana on a bumpy night.
We seem to be in a Buck Palace ballroom whose painting and furnishings have been banished by a sinister stairway to the basement but the gigantic Phantom of the Opera chandelier has been left aloft to alternately smolder and blaze to suit the undulating emotional pitches and to respond to invocations to the gods.
Only a grim upstage doorway recalls the gloomy gateway resonant of Greek tragedy. This dour door reminds us that Racine’s pre-Revolutionary French Phedra is a derivative of the Greek heavy-metal Hippolytus of the Euripedes of Medea fame.
But what initially seems brazenly bizarre soon acquires poetic perspective. Once Jason Klarwein’s Hippolytus and Leo Wockner’s Theramenes have hooked us with their hefty expositions and when Penny Everingham’s Oenone and Anita Hegh’s Phedra have brought Forbidden Love to the surface, dramatic fusion is swift.
As the sickly plot thickens, the darkly-serpentine, slow-pacing Panope (who in this production also absorbs Ismene’s role) of Jodie Le Vesconte and the lolliepoppy-innocuous (on the surface) Princess Aricia of Rebecca Dale nalance on another beautifully in the framing of the pivotal characters. At last through the deadly doorway enters the much mentioned King Theseus, the reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. Symbolising the head of this dysfunctional royal family, Steven Grives’ grave appearance and gritty voice counterpoint sharply the insecurities of those who interlock with him.
Though Phedra has the reputation of being a sexy play about incest, it is nothing of the kind. Phedra’a love for her stepson is not reciprocated and never comes within cooee of being consummated, and even if it were it would not be incest, since he is not her blood relative. The word incest is in the play but the drama is driven by Phedra’s internal obsession, bred of her inability to come to terms with herself and with those she collides with.
Personally I think that Racine weakened the Euripedes original by stripping from Phedra the sin of lying to her husband Theseus. Racine makes Oenone guilty of telling this lie, which in the earlier play is contained in a suicide note written by Phedra. It is not easy to believe that the nurse Oenone would so slander Hippolytus, though Penny Everingham skillfully develops some degree of cunning in this character.
Michael Gow is also an opera director. No doubt he has aided and abetted the cast’s handling of the highly operatic six-stressed rhyming couplets of Robert David Macdonald’s toey translation, which often echoes the French Alexandrine lines of Racine. Since much of the play’s power stems from its poetry, it is great to find the cast speaking with verve and variety and (most of the time) with clarity. They are not afraid of comic pointings on the one hand and power punching on the other. Furthermore they all succeed in making the long speeches seem to be the improvised releasing of inner tensions, agonies and the ectasies, rather than the calculated displays of rhetoric. I loved Hippolytus’s attempts to connect with his father, Phedra’s inner incandescence, Oenone’s cross-weaving of compassion and criticism, Theseus’s ultimate agonised awareness and Theramenes’ heart-broken eye-witness account of Hippolytus’s horrific ending.
A remarkable union of lighting and sound effects, both pulsing in response to the play’s poetry, is achieved by Matt Scott and Brett Collery. Robert Kemp’s inventively exotic spatial and clothing designs banish traditional clichés and help power this production to its unforgettable sunset.