Phaedra's Love ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Phaedra's Love

Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane, directed by Julie Waddington, design Julie Waddington and Luke Hails, sound by Nicholas Albanis. With Ben Noble, Georgina Capper, Fabienne Parr, Peter Roberts, Nick Austin, Pablo Calero, Alison Boyce, Jacinta Perry and Keira Lyons. Abstract Chaos with Instorage at the Store Room, until November 21.

Sarah Kane is the most exciting British playwright to emerge in the past decade. Her work was long overshadowed by the tabloid frenzy sparked by the 1995 production of her first play, Blasted, notoriously greeted as the product of a "sick" mind by a succession of rabidly foaming reviewers. The Daily Mail's Jack Tinker memorably labelled it a "disgusting feast of filth".

In common with many English-language writers treated without honour in their own countries (Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Howard Barker), European theatre was quick to recognise Kane's significance and welcomed Blasted as one of the most important plays of the 1990s. Critical opinion in Britain began to turn in 1998 with the premiere of Crave, but her suicide the following year made her the poete maudite of her generation. After her suicide, Kane's plays - like Sylvia Plath's poetry, and to their equal detriment - were mostly read as autobiographical expressions which foreshadowed her untimely death. As much as the claim that she wrote to shock for shock's sake, this romanticised notion obscured her uncompromising theatrical innovation.

In Australia, despite her steadily growing international reputation, Kane's work is still the province of the "fringe". She has been staged by theatres like Brisbane's La Boite and Sydney's New Theatre or the Stables, or by small independent theatre companies in Melbourne. I mean no disrespect to independent companies when I say that it's a shameful reflection on Australian theatre that one of the most important contemporary playwrights in the English language is unable to get a gig on a major stage.

Kane was one of a post-Thatcher generation of playwrights which emerged in the 1990s and challenged the pedagogic "theatre of journalism" exemplified most notably by David Hare. Many of them looked to playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp, or to Howard Barker's "theatre of catastrophe", as animating inspirations. As Kane's work evolved, her plays successively attacked the notion of theatrical naturalism in a distinctively visceral way. The revulsion and shock her plays invoke is never gratuitous, but is intended to provoke a re-evaluation of reality.

Although these playwrights were called the Nihilists or the New Brutalists, Kane's vision is far from nihilistic. It exposes a moral universe in which, as Hamlet says, "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so", and searches uncompromisingly for an ethics which can survive the violence of our contemporary world. But even 4:48 Psychosis, her final, excoriatingly beautiful masterpiece, finishes with a fragmentary but stubborn hope that should not be dimmed by her subsequent suicide.

Abstract Chaos' production of Kane's second play, Phaedra's Love, is an uncertain rendering of Kane's work, but worth seeing nevertheless. The night begins promisingly, but by the end has fallen off the unforgiving tightrope that Kane sets up with such deceptively simple assurance. It exemplifies the kind of difficulties - lack of resources, lack of time - faced by independent theatre productions. I should add that some of its problems may resolve as the season progresses.

Phaedra's Love is Kane's take on Seneca's and Euripides' tragedies Hippolytus, which tell the legend of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus. She is cursed by Aphrodite and falls desperately in love with her stepson, the beautiful and chaste youth Hippolytus, with catastrophic results. It is most famously adapted by Racine in his play Phaedre, which is written in what are allegedly (I have to take George Steiner's word for it) sublimely beautiful alexandrines.

Kane's take couldn't be more iconoclastic, although it still has traces of the naturalism which she afterwards abandoned altogether. Phaedra's Love is the most darkly funny of her plays and is also the first which explores the nature of love, a theme that became the major obsession of the later work. Here she perverts Phaedra's tragedy to create what is at once a chilling vision of the nature of obsessive love, and a strange liberation from despair.

In Phaedra's Love, Hippolytus (Ben Noble) is very far from being the chaste and beautiful youth of the original story. He is physically and emotionally repugnant, seen in the opening scene watching tv while wanking into a sock. (He checks that he hasn't blown his nose in it first). Phaedra's (Georgina Capper) fatal passion for him is therefore inscrutable and terrifying; when she declares her love, in a scene of skin-crawling humiliation, she performs oral sex on him while he watches television and snacks indifferently from a bag of lollies.

Yet in his monstrous boredom, his disgust with the falsity of everything that surrounds him, Hippolytus is also a curiously attractive character. Behind his joylessness and refusal of any human contact lies a desire for absolute honesty, a ruthless integrity which will have no truck with a world that disgusts him. The only time he shows anything like wonder is after he hears of Phaedra's suicide: "She really did love me... Bless her." And it becomes clear that Phaedra's accusation of rape against him is not the act of revenge that it appears to be, but a gift: the orgy of violence which follows is, at last, a real moment, in which there is no trace of human deceit. Hence his final words: "If there could have been more moments like this."

Phaedra's suicide is the logical result of the fire which has so consumed her, her abnegation the utter loss of self which is, as Kane perceived, tragically attracted to its opposite, the self that will compromise nothing. The gravity exerted by these extremes detroys everything around them - Phaedra's daughter Strophe (Fabianne Parr) is raped and murdered by Theseus (Peter Roberts) in the final carnage. But Kane's humour here is wicked: the murders of the Royal family are represented as a barbecue, with Hippolytus' genitals becoming a gruesome sausage.

Kane's grand guignol violence contains a serious critique, of classical theatre as much as of the nature of human love and the dilemma of the self. It's in eight tautly written scenes, which move rapidly to its horrifying and obscenely funny conclusion. Unfortunately, Julie Waddington's direction seldom matches the icy clarity of the text, so nothing is ever quite in focus.

Stylised acting at the pitch this play demands requires a depth of polish that the standard four weeks' rehearsal simply cannot achieve with any certainty. Georgina Capper's performance as Phaedra is the most successful in negotiating the challenges of the play's stylistic formality, and has some genuinely thrilling moments. Ben Noble's Hippolytus achieves his character's grossness, but falters at the extremity of his despair and so cannot reveal his perverse nobility. I had the feeling that often the other performances were hesitant or even, at times, without conviction. This means that the final scene has all the faults of stage violence when it doesn't work: despite the liberal application of tomato sauce it merely looks fake, and the audience laughs for the wrong reasons.

I thought the set design a major problem in this production. Admittedly, Kane wrote with a fine disregard for the difficulties of designers: at one point Phaedra's body is meant to be set on fire, which defeated the ingenuity of this production team. At times, however, the set literally gets in the way of seeing the action, and the pace is hindered by cumbersome moveable blocks which are rearranged between scenes. The set changes impede the flow of the tragedy, stilting its emotional movement so it achieves neither apotheoses of horror nor comedy. Despite these reservations, it's a rare chance to see - if through a glass darkly - a fascinating work by a major contemporary dramatist.

The Store Room
Sarah Kane


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the typo pointer, Jen - I am properly chastened!

All the best


Alison Croggon said...

Hi JenS

Sorry for having temporarily misplaced my gender awareness spectacles. I fully acknowledge your hirsute masculinity in a suitably simpering feminine fashion.

(Apologising again? What's wrong with me?! But I _can_ spell Jens - Jens Jens Jens - see?)

I'll see if I can fix up the links -



Handuzio Sons said...

This's a beautiful text on Sarah's Comedy.

Thank you for you post.