PHAEDRA, described as “a new play by Simon Stone after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”, is about forbidden love, a woman’s passion – or lust – for her stepson, and the tragic consequences that flow from her obsession.
Stone, who has both written and directed the theatre piece, says he has always been fascinated by the classic Greek play Phaedra, and its different versions over the centuries.
At the National Theatre, Phaedra becomes Helen (Janet McTeer), an MP who is a shadow cabinet member (possibly, but not obviously, Labour) with an Iranian-origin diplomat husband, Hugo (Paul Chahidi), whom she finds dull.
The couple have a comfortable middle-class life with properties in London’s Holland Park, Suffolk, Biarritz and Corfu. They have an adult daughter, Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), who doesn’t much like her perfectly decent black husband, Eric (John MacMillan), and a teenage son, Declan (Archie Barnes). All in all, it is a pretty dysfunctional family.
Helen experiences a sexual awakening when Sofiane, a Moroccan illegal immigrant played by French actor Assaad Bouab, appears on the scene. She ends up in bed with him. Sofiane also sleeps with Isolde, making her pregnant. The only complication is that he is the son of Helen’s late Moroccan lover who was killed in a crash when she was in the car. Sofiane was five at the time.
Her confidant is her fellow black MP, Omolara (Akiya Henry).
The set is a revolving glass box designed by Chloe Lamford. The blackouts in between acts last for up to 45 seconds. It took me until after the interval to understand what was really going on. The dialogue in the first half was a little too quick-fire, frenetic even.
During a restaurant birthday party when Helen discovers Isolde has been made pregnant by Sofiane, she rages at her daughter: “You stole my boyfriend.” Although the play has comic touches, it is a tragedy which results from Helen’s determination to rediscover her lost youth and sexual vitality.
Phaedra’s story is said to have informed movies like The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols, one of my favourite films, with a near-perfect screenplay.
The play has also recalled the 1990 Punjabi adaptation, Fida/Phaedra, directed by Neelam Mansingh.
At the time, the production company said Mansingh’s play “deals with Rani Fida’s unconventional love and yearning for her stepson Harman. The nature of her love damns her in her own eyes and she chooses death as a resolution to her passion. Since her husband is believed to be dead, her confidant and maid persuades Fida to reveal her love, as the death of her husband alters the course of her destiny. Her maid tries to free her from her overwhelming sense of guilt, as her relationship with her stepson is determined by her husband. With his death, her love becomes like any ordinary love, freed from social constraints.
“Emboldened by these circumstances, Fida reveals her uncontrollable love to Harman. Confused by his silence, she tries the desperate step of trying to lure him with promises of the throne and land. At this point the maid returns with the news that the king is alive. Fida is devastated as her earlier private feelings have now been shared with Harman.
“In a state of total and utter confusion she allows the maid to tell her husband that his son had tried to seduce her. In total and all-consuming rage, the king curses his son. Distraught by this news, Fida goes to plead for Harman’s life and reveals her guilt, only to discover that Harman loves another woman, Arcia. Fida succumbs to jealousy and keeps quiet. Her silence unleashes a series of tragic events that lead to the final climax.
“In this play we are dealing with matters of convention and tradition, transforming the innocence of love into a negative experience. How society and its deep-rooted attitudes determine who one should love and how much. Fida’s love, combined with her moral conscience and her superhuman efforts, are powerless against the fatality of passion.”
It was certainly brave of Mansingh to put on her play in Indian society. However, there has been a Punjabi tale about Queen Loona who loved her chaste son, Puran Bhagat. But her errors were caused more by mental illness and confusion, rather than transgressing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in society.
On “the fear of forbidden love”, it is said “the moral heart of the story, which makes it so perennially relevant, transcends all such cultural variations – namely, the incendiary potential of suppressed sexual desire to cause unlimited damage not only to individuals, but to their entire family and community.”
Stone, who was brought up in Australia, said: “We’re going through a phase in history where there seems to be a growing willingness to discuss topics that seemed taboo or toward. Subjects that would have been things that people used to go, ‘well, we can’t possibly sell that or talk about that without feeling crass,’ start being talked about more. In this particular realm (Phaedra), women talking about their sex lives as an older woman.”
He talked about his interpretation of a classic play. “What it is to feel sexually expressive in a surprising new way at an age where you feel, to a certain extent, invisible as a sexual agent? That was where I wanted to start exploring the story.”
About the character of Helen, Stone said: “She’s a politician for the opposition. She’s historically been fairly liberal, socially minded, a big human rights supporter, but over the years she’s become what I guess used to be called a champagne socialist. I think she’s become more comfortable in that role. She’s someone who used to take more risks and put herself more out there, but she’s accepted, to a certain extent, the compromise of what the political cut and thrust involves.
“She’s waking up in a world where she realised that she hasn’t had an adventure in a long time and that she’s used politics as a vicarious way to feel like she is thrilling herself, but it’s through political action or legislation or the drama of parliament rather than through her own existence.
“And then she meets this man, Sofiane, who is still an activist, is still involved in the dirty, uncomfortable side of politics. She’s reminded there was a part of her that used to feel like that.”
Stone added: “The UK is going through a time of great upheaval and extraordinary soul-searching, and so it’s ripe for theatre to take some kind of leading role in hosting the conversations about who we are and about where we’re going.”
Human nature doesn’t change much. The origins of Phaedra can be found in Hippolytus, an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, based on the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. The play was first produced for the City Dionysia of Athens in 428 BC and won first prize as part of a trilogy. While her husband Theseus is away engaged in war and believed dead, his wife Phaedra reveals her love for her stepson, Hippolytus. When he rejects her, she accuses him of rape when her husband returns unexpectedly. Phaedra also commits suicide.
Nearly 500 years later, the Spanish philosopher Seneca adapted Euripides’s play into a Latin tragedy. And in 1677, it was turned into a five-act French play by Jean Baptiste Racine.
Apart from seeing the play at the National, it would be a good idea to go back to the original source material.
Phaedra is on at the Lyttelton Theatre at the National until April 8, 2023.