Phèdre (Bell Shakespeare)

phaedreVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 6 – 29, 2013
Playwright: Jean Racine (translated by Ted Hughes)
Director: Peter Evans
Actors: Catherine McClements, Julie Forsyth, Marco Chiappi, Edmund Lembke-Hogan

Theatre review
Not very much happens in this story, but the enjoyment of Greek tragedies like Phèdre is in their heightened sense of drama, and the creative choices made by contemporary theatre practitioners in their interpretation of texts centuries old.

Lead actor Catherine McClements is best in sections where her character’s emotions are overflowing. She portrays pain and guilt with a delicious darkness, and her strength in guiding her audience through the plot with very clear story-telling in terms of her intentions and transitions are remarkable. Even though she lacks a sense of majesty and physical agility that this level of drama seems to require, McClements compensates with her impressive charisma and presence.

Also remarkable is Julie Forsyth who plays Phèdre’s nurse. Even though the role is comparatively small, her grasp of the genre is completely arresting.  The other actors are less appealing, especially Lembke-Hogan who seems to have walked right off a budget soap set, completely out of his depth. One leaves the theatre wondering if actor training caters now only to television work, with emphasis on voice and face, but everything from the neck down is neglected.

Set, lighting and sound design are subtle and sophisticated, with a murky sexiness permeating the theatre even before the play commences. This serves the themes of illicit desire and spousal betrayal well, but comes in conflict with small sections of the play where the mood is lighter and both audience and players obviously need a dose of comedy and quick reprieve from the intensity of the story. Costume design is overly minimal, detracting from the depiction of a “royal story”, although keeping in line with the overall visual style of the production.

For those of us who love dramatic tragedies, it is always about going on that emotional journey which appeals the most. When this is achieved with a classic play that has stood the test of time and does not rely on fads and gimmicks, the experience is particularly satisfying.