For sheer commitment above and beyond the call of duty, Isabelle Huppert has always been the actress of choice. Whether it’s slicing her genitals with a razor in The Piano Teacher, sinking into hidden despair in The Lacemaker or stalking her rapist in her new movie Elle, she has always been willing to bare her soul and quite a lot more in the pursuit of art.
She is at it again here, in this epic, three-and-a-half hour mash up of three different versions of the legend of Phaedra, the woman in Greek and Roman myth who marries the murderous Theseus and burns with desire for her stepson Hippolytus. She screams, she shouts, she wears sunglasses and is winningly ironic; she crawls across the stage, simulates fellatio (endlessly) and waves her beautiful legs in the air, or spreads them wide as menstrual blood pours out. She sits still in a chair like a stranded doll. Her voice (in her native French) is sometimes rasping and sometimes subtly honeyed. She is staggeringly beautiful, magnificent and mesmeric.
At 63, she bestrides this Odéon-Théâtre de L’Europe production, at the Barbican as part of LIFT, like a colossus. It feels very French, even though it is directed by the Polish Krzysztof Warlikowski. You either have to accept its artful, self-conscious pretension and go with the flow or simply reject it and write the entire thing off as a bit of European art house nonsense.
I chose to accept it, and although I was frequently irritated and occasionally bored, I was never less than intrigued. It looks stunning. Malgorzata Szczesniak’s sterile set conjures a five star hotel while dwarfing the actors. Huppert, with her slim frame and slight limbs, seems to vanish into the pale walls as she bewails her fate. A great mirrored cube, with gauze walls, slides out from one side; one entire encounter between Phaedra and Hippolytus is played within its alienating frame.
Though on paper the action seems complicated, it is easy to follow. There are three distinct sections, effectively three plays. It opens with a song in Arabic and a girl gyrating as Huppert staggers on as Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, stylish in belted trenchcoat and dark glasses. The script is by Wajdi Mouawad and explores an alternate version of desire. The central section is a very Gallic adaption of Sarah Kane‘s Phaedra’s Love, in which Huppert is transformed into the central figure in a grand guignol domestic drama, wherein Hippolytus is sulking in his room like a teenager and rejecting his step-mother’s seduction not because he is pure but because he is disgusting.
The final part is based on JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Huppert, now in smart black silk shirt and trousers, is a sharp-tongued academic talking to an admiring TV chat show house about the intercourse between gods and mortals, and the way the gods envy our capacity to feel. Film clips illustrate her dissertation and then suddenly, devastatingly she slips into playing Racine’s Phédre, a model of despair in the face of overwhelming passion. Andrzej Chyra, brilliant throughout, lends sterling support.
It is heart-stopping, a fitting conclusion to a weird but memorable evening of theatre. At the close, Huppert quelled the rapturous applause to tell us "All Europe loves you. Stay with us." Which was a fitting conclusion to an evening that springs from a very European sensibility, challenging but also invigorating to us uptight Brits.
Phaedra(s) runs at the Barbican Centre as part of LIFT until 18 June.