”Phaedra” review – baffling work from Simon Stone gets itself in a spin at the National
Sadly, however, things have somehow come a cropper. Forget Phaedra, here we have the re-named Helen (McTeer, solid), a Cabinet member with an unwaveringly metropolitan existence (even her children swear at her!) who connects with Sofiane, the journalist son of her long-dead former Moroccan lover (Bouab, pretty convincing). Sofiane is fleeing his home after causing a stir with some incendiary headlines. Echoing the original tale, Helen embarks on a romantic tryst with the Moroccan, but so too does her married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) –setting the scene for a messy, cuckhold-heavy love triangle that threatens Helen’s career, her marriage and more.
But the tone is jarring – some moments feel like Stone is channelling his inner Alan Ayckbourn with rom-com spats and wry lines about infidelity, whereas a final, brutal mountaintop crescendo is violently left-field and upends the 160-minutes.
It doesn’t help that cast members feel as though they’re in two in different productions – like warring sides in West Side Story. In the comedy camp you have Archie Barnes (Helen’s curmudgeonly son Declan), John Macmillan and Paul Chahidi as the unfortunate cuckholds as well as Helen’s MP colleague Omora (Akiya Henry, sorely underused).
On the other side of the table, McTeer, Davis and Bouab seem to be attempting to find some deeper, more profound reflection on love, loss and memory that Stone’s script only timidly gestures at – rather than fully explores. Despite some relatively intriguing voice-overs interspersed between scenes, Sofiane is an elusive presence, an immigrant essentially used to faciliate a privileged white woman’s emotional decay and opportunity to explore her sexual identiy. This means the show swings from farce through to bleakness within minutes, while protracted scene changes stymy any sense of through-line and tone.
Chloe Lamford’s spinning glass tinderbox of a set seems largely reminiscent of a much-more successful trick pulled by Es Devlin in the same venue for The Lehman Trilogy. It’s a shame the text couldn’t be as revolutionary as the revolving stage it’s on.