'Phaedra' review – Janet McTeer gives a unmissable performance in this blistering modern update

Read our four-star review of Janet McTeer in Phaedra, now playing at the National Theatre through 8 April.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The uber-talented Australian writer/director Simon Stone, who brought us a shattering modernised Yerma with Billie Piper in 2016, is back with another gripping contemporary reworking (and another glass box set). This time he’s wrestled the story of Phaedra from Euripides, Seneca and Racine, and changed the title character from monstrous antiheroine to fascinatingly flawed modern woman – creating a blistering showcase for Janet McTeer in the process.

The seeds of the original story are still there, but instead of Phaedra falling in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and then falsely accusing him of rape, this version is a British politician called Helen who has far more agency. And yet she’s still felled by desire, and with complicated feelings bound up in her past – including just a hint of incest. Or, as one character memorably puts it: “some pretty fucking kinky Lazarus shit.”

The bombshell that explodes her comfortable middle-class family life is the surprise appearance of Sofiane, son of Helen’s Moroccan lover Achraf, who left his family for her and then tragically died in a car crash. Immediately, the articulate, composed Helen is tongue-tied and flustered: Sofiane looks so much like his father. It’s confusing for him, too: Helen was part of his sexual awakening, yet he resents her for tempting his artist, activist father into a hard-partying, decadent lifestyle.

Not only that, but Helen’s daughter Isolde looks very like a young Helen. “I’m older than you, but I look at you and feel like a child,” Sofiane confesses. As for Isolde, she sees a passionate possibility in Sofiane that’s lacking in her marriage to the nice-to-a-fault Eric (in a great running gag, her family all seem to like Eric more than her), while for Helen, it’s a chance to get back in touch with her liberated younger self, or to have a second chance at inhabiting that powerful sexual being.

Stone and McTeer have spoken about wanting to address how society renders women invisible post-menopause (and that’s referenced in the script, amusingly, with Helen snapping that she’s not interested in being a Guardian headline). But her headlong rush into self-destructive behaviour, her blinding by desire, feels pretty universal here, and I'm not sure the play's attitudes to youth and gender are really all that enlightened.

Additionally, the set roles of this privileged clan are rather too schematic. Isolde, the most embarrassed by their status, works for an NGO, and possibly punishes herself by staying in a dull marriage in which they can’t conceive children. Helen’s husband, the self-effacing, eternal peacemaker Hugo, is – of course – a diplomat. Sofiane is a principled journalist who had to flee Morocco after criticising the government. And Helen has a Black politician friend who is basically only there to call her out on her blinkered self-pity (although Akiya Henry does that with relish).

But Stone brilliantly captures the way that families behave: the lightning-fast cross-talk, the mixture of love and needling, the well-worn references and in-jokes, the festering resentments. Of the latter, Isolde is still angry that her parents never let them be children; her teenage brother (a very funny Archie Barnes) is indeed wildly precocious, and had to sort out his own school fees when his dad forgot to pay them. Is it selfish of Helen to further abandon them, as she becomes consumed by her feelings for Sofiane? Or does she have a right to reclaim her lost self?

McTeer’s committed performance gives us all the shades of Helen, including the unflattering ones: from her fierce intelligence and extraordinary sexual rebirth to her ruthless egotism and occasional pure savagery. She leads an excellent company: Paul Chahidi’s tragic clown Hugo, finally pushed to his breaking point; Mackenzie Davis’s Isolde, terrified by ungovernable feelings that don’t match her principles; Assaad Bouab’s traumatised, elusive Sofiane, who is in turn exoticised and used; and John MacMillan’s poor, sweet, crumpled Eric.

Chloe Lamford’s slowly rotating glass box adds to the painfully tense claustrophobia of the situation, but there are sightline issues with its black bars, and although the actors are miked, we feel too distanced from them (it would work better if this was staged in the round). But different locations are brilliantly evoked: the family’s luxurious London pad, complete with requisite kitchen island; the Suffolk reed beds, so tall they swallow up the actors; and an achingly hip restaurant for an excruciating birthday dinner.

That latter scene perfectly mixes big, bold emotions with sizzling black comedy; it reminded me of that similarly fraught dinner in Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster, and some of Stone’s delicious skewering of the elite (along with a lingering threat of violence) recalls The White Lotus. But he sometimes loses that crucial balance – particularly in the final scenes, which, frustratingly, hurl too much previously withheld information at us and sink into clichéd melodrama.

Ultimately, there’s too much going on here: stabs at a fate versus personal responsibility argument; multiple languages, nations and causes; conflicting political, moral and religious stances; plus a thriller element egged on by the use of tapes left by Achraf (which we hear in voiceover). But this is meaty, pugilistic, wrenching drama, anchored by an unmissable performance by McTeer.

Phaedra is at the Lyttelton Theatre through 8 April. Book Phaedra tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Janet McTeer and Assaad Bouab in Phaedra (Photo by Johan Persson)

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