Phèdre | Bell ShakespeareLeft – Catherine McClements. Cover – Catherine McClements & Julie Forsyth. Photos – Rush

Phèdre, a reworking of a Greek tragedy by 17th century French playwright Racine, is regularly produced in France but little known in Australia so do grab the opportunity offered by Bell Shakespeare to see it at the Malthouse.

UK Poet Laureate Ted Hughes rewrote the script of this version of Phèdre shortly before he died in 1998. Peter Evans directs this production with sparse brush strokes, restraining the actors' movements so that the action of the play is propelled by the text. The words resound in a tightly held, still space; each nuance and inflection is given weight and Hughes's beautiful lean language dominates the stage.

The confined set suggesting a dry decaying grandeur further confines the action. The actors silently announce themselves, waiting on stage to speak before their turn in the story, so no part of the narrative is left without highlight.

Catherine McClements' Phèdre is darkly sexual, she's abject in herself. Phèdre is desperate, duplicitous and self-serving, consumed by the strength of her desire, a force in its own right matched by her guilt. Sometimes startingly modern in her responses, her character suffers the extremes of vulnerability and longing of a woman in love. The overarching premise of the story is alien in its stark thinking: we no longer blame capricious gods for our foibles and misfortunes, but the psychology is familiar; we do know how it feels to be undone by love. This production finely balances the classic and contemporary, remaining true to the epic nature of the story (at stake here is the future of the city state of Athens), while showing how emotion divorces us from reason.

Edmund Lembke-Hogan is not sufficiently flint-like as Hippolytus; there's nothing wrong with his acting per se but he has a warmth about him, making it hard to believe in his character's avowed hitherto aversion to women. His own wonder at his new status as lover of Aricia (Abby Earl) is evident. Julie Forsyth brings a deeply inhabited pragmatism to her old nurse, Oenone, the character  reminiscent of Juliet's nurse. The fine cast also includes Bert LaBonte as Théramène and Caroline Lee as Panope. Marco Chiappi as business tycoon/emperor Theseus, claims a lonely physical command of the stage; dominating with movement and his marvelous voice.

Accompanying all of this is a wondrously subtle and sinister soundscape (composed by Kelly Ryall); it sounds as though the earth groaning at times, at others it shrieks with the voice of the underworld, adding to the sense of being surrounded by invisible and ancient powers. We hear the beating of wings when a character dies. Every second on stage is gripping and the story is clear and powerful. Well worth catching this one.

Bell Shakespeare presents
by Jean Racine | translation by Ted Hughes

Director Peter Evans

Venue: Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne
Dates: 17 May – 2 June, 2013

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 6 – 29 June 2013


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