REVIEW: PHAEDRA (National Theatre) ★★★★

Seneca’s Phaedra was originally a Roman tragedy written by philosopher and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca before 54 A.D. It tells the story of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus of Athens and her consuming lust for her stepson Hippolytus. This story was so popular back in the day, Seneca’s Phaedra is just one of several artistic explorations of this tragic story. In Seneca’s version, he portrays Phaedra as self-aware and direct in the pursuit of her stepson taking on a scheming nature, while in other treatments of the myth, she is more of a passive victim of fate.

Drawing from Seneca’s version, Writer-Director Simon Stone (Yerma, Young Vic) now reimagines the famous tragedy for the National Theatre in Phaedra, a new play by Simon Stone after Euripides, Seneca and Racine.

Simon Stone modernises Phaedra and after years of fierce focus on her political career, she now turns her attention to her personal life. The reappearance of Phaedra’s step-son shakes the foundations of her house and the beliefs that have underpinned her power. As buried lust and loneliness surge to the surface, Phaedra’s actions threaten to destroy everything she has built. In a house of glass, one must not throw stones.

In this National Theatre production, Janet McTeer (Ozark) takes the title role now called Helen, with Paul Chadihi (Salomé, As You Like It) as her husband Hugo and Mackenzie Davis (Station Eleven, Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror) and Archie Barnes (All My Sons, Bugsy Malone) as their children Isolde and Declan. John Macmillan (Yerma, he Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Hamlet) plays Isolde’s husband Eric and Assaad Bouab (The Plough and the Stars, One Thousand and One Nights, King Lear) is returning step-son Sofaine. Nadia Nadif (What Do You See?, Deen and Dunya 1001 Nights, Twelfth Night) as Aicha, Sirine Saba (Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, Nation, Sparkleshark) as Reda, Nicholas Gauci (Hampton Court Palace Live Shows, How to Be Lucky, Rumpelstiltskin) as Daoud and Akiya Henry (Coram Boy, Once in a Lifetime, Anything Goes) as Omolara. Joining them as ensemble are Rhys Bailey (Leopoldstadt, Doctor Zhivago), Johanne Murdock (King Lear, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Mohsen Ghaffari (The Words for A Play, A Pie and A Pint, The Syrian Baker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Emmanuel Olusanya (Lark Rise to Candleford, Flashbang, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens) and Dot Williams (Uncle Vanya, Constellations, Closer).

As an ensemble, the actors form a believable dysfunctional liberal family unit where wine flows, swear words are the norm and sex is talked about over the dinner table. As Helen, Janet McTeer is superb. Spanning an incredible emotional arch during the play, McTeer delves headfirst into Helen/ Phaedra’s psyche, expertly holding on for dear life in a riveting performance careening towards Phaedra’s graphic untimely end. As her long-suffering husband Hugo, Paul Chadihi is wonderful. Mild-mannered and overshadowed by Helen, Chadihi portrays a Hugo slowly regaining his identity and coming into his own. As their daughter Isolde, Mackenzie Davis gives a compelling performance. Discovering her own sexuality, Isolde falls in love with tragic consequences and Davis portrays her undoing finesse. As Helen and Hugo’s son Declan, young Archie Barnes gives a solid performance. The modern smart phone obsessed child, Declan is at first shielded from his family’s shortcomings and then fully exposed at an explosive birthday party scene where he leaves declaring “fuck you all”… and I mean, fair… fair. A fun performance from a very talented up and coming actor. As Isolde’s husband Eric, John Macmillan performs with skill navigating between emotional wreck and perpetual nice guy before erupting in an emotionally charged violent retort. As returning step-son Sofaine, Assaad Bouab gives an exceptional performance. Broken, stubborn and lost, Bouab’s Sofiane feels his own country under fear of persecution and comes to London to find his father’s ex-lover Helen. Befriending the family, Sofiane soon discovers all is not well within the London household and so begins Phaedra’s tragedy. Bouab’s multilingual Sofiane is a masterclass in dramatic acting and had the audience enthralled throughout.

All the action takes place in a large rotating box with Chloe Lamford’s set design becoming a character on its own. Often displaying English subtitles, this versatile set transforms from a fully functioning family home, to an upscale London restaurant, an empty office building in Birmingham, to the side of a snowy mountain with dramatic effect. Each set is enveloped with detail, beautifully designed and wonderfully installed by the crew transporting you into Phaedra’s world.

Simon Stone’s new Phaedra puts an elitist family drama in the spotlight and exploits the audience’s schadenfreude, just as shows like Love Island, Married at First Sight and Love Is Blind do.

Reviewed by Stuart James