Catherine McClements in Phedre | Playhouse

Shamed as I am to admit it, this is the first time (at least that I recall) I’ve seen Catherine McClements on stage and, from foyer chitchat, I gather I’m probably not that only one. this means my key reference point for her acting talents is her role as Goldie in Water Rats; a number of women I’ve spoken with seem to regard highly, as a strong, positive, aspirational one for their gender. The role of Phedre, in Jean Racine’s racy take on the corresponding Greek myth, is quite different.

Phedre isn’t an upstanding, determined woman hellbent on prosecuting bad eggs, she’s a self-serving, overindulged trophy wife (of the cloyingly heroic King Theseus, a legend in his own mind and everyone else’s) who’s fuelled her own infatuation with her Greek godlike stepson, Hippolytus. Like an upper north shore post-yummy mummy who still feels restless, even after running the dalmatian ’round leafy streets and kicking back with cappuccinos with Prue & Trude at Le Froth, Phedre’s self-talk rivals Ron Barassi’s team revups. Mrs T is indeed in a lather of sexual anticipation, her brow fevered by unbridled lust, which holier-than-thou Hippo can’t abide. Mind you, it does seem to leave him quaking in his low-cut buskins.

Phedre is suffering from a mystery illness which is, at least according to her and her steadfast nurse (Oenone), killing her. The illness might simply be her rapacity. I certainly don’t think it’s any kind of cancer, other than the kind that afflicts the empty lives of privileged people: a kind of hypochondriacal malaise, brought on by boredom and an attention deficit (towards them). Meanwhile, her stepson, Hippolytus, is planning a dutiful mission to recover his father, MIA for half a year. His obligation, however, is felt more ardently thanks to his very privately declared affection for Alicia; a love which seems almost platonic in nature. The contrast between the rabid Phedre and chaste Hippolytus is one of the puzzles and fascinations of the play. Is she irresponsible, openly passionate, or both? Is he soberingly self-disciplined, or repressed?

This is very much McClements’ play: it’s as if, between her and director Peter Evans, every sinew has been co-opted for characterisation; there isn’t a single squandered expression or gesticulation. The performance is big, but so is the role. In Racine (at least as interpreted here, via the prism of Ted Hughes’ translation), Phedre is the epitome of self-absorption; a woman who only ever see herself in the mirror, but, even then, never penetrates below the epidermis. Naturally, this proves much more tragic and tormenting for those around her, who, no matter how loyal, serve as mere excuses and scapegoats for her own failings. Poetic justice would make Phedre her own worst enemy and ensure an unhappy demise, but, on the contrary, Phedre swerves to avoid the wheel of karma every time it looks like flattening her, like Wily Coyote, against the tarmacadam. She is highly-strung and histrionic and it’s for us to judge whether her disingenuousness and cruelty, especially to Oenone (played to pitiable perfection by Julie Forsyth), her devoted handmaiden, is unwitting and genetically embedded oblivion, or deliberate, calculating cold-bloodedness, which she manifests in a high-stakes game where the risks are all at the other players’ expense.

As Evans has pointed out, it’s quite astonishing we don’t see more of Phedre here, given that, in terms of reverence accorded and frequency of production, it’s the French Hamlet. There is so much meat on the bones, it’s like the world’s tastiest rib restaurant, in dramatic terms. So many intrigues. First of all, there’s the almost asexual disposition of Hippolytus, tempered only be a professed love for the prisoner, Aricia. Is he gay? Sexually confused? Merely, hypolibinous? Misogynistic? Gynophopic? Edmund Lembke-Hogan captures what can only be described as a kind of eunuch-like unidimensionality that seems to be implicit to the role. Interestingly, there’s a kind of parallel between Hippolytus outward sexual nonchalance and Oenone’s. Of course, in the case of the last, there’s the spectre, too, of possible homosexual leanings: her crushing end is arguably the work of more than a disillusioned servant. The alignments of character don’t end there: both Hippolytus and Oenone, though under the thumb of different masters, are almost masochistic in their compliance; their obedience reaches beyond asceticism and even self-sacrifice to an almost pathological need to succumb, rather than succeed. They are bucklers, sans swash.

Marco Chiappi’s Theseus is as honed, in its way, as McClement’s Phedre, though he seems to betray an aspiration to two things: to play a definitive Richard III and be Geoffrey Rush, whose style, it appears, on this evidence, isn’t entirely inimitable. Then again, if you’re going to make off with someone else’s dramatic shtick, there are precious few better to pillage. The Richard reference is in light of the stooped deportment so often applied. Clearly, the implausibly heroic, demigod-like Theseus doesn’t possess the Hitlerian charisma of the Shakespearean character. But, in a way, (this) Theseus is an inversion of Dick 3: rather than a plotting despot, however, his legendary deeds are noble, yet so voluminous and exaggerated his reputation makes him smell, ironically, like fish; his evil, if it exists, is an undercurrent that runs between and tickles our toes, like the first kiss of a box jellyfish.

Abby Earl’s Aricia is innocent enough; all that she needs to be, since hers is a rather simplistic, almost incidental character. There was a sense in which she was rather junior to her peers, however. Caroline Lee’s Panope (wife of Poseidon and daughter of Thespius) is effective enough but, again, there isn’t much room in the role for her to strut her stuff. Bert La Bont plies a profitable trade in classical understatement, if you will: there’s a very attractive naturalness to his delivery. As Theramene, Hippolytus tutor, confidante and surrogate father, he exudes a quiet, reserved wisdom that makes the key protagonists look reckless and their own worst counsel. In many ways, he stands as the conscience of the play.

The early minutes of this production troubled me, inasmuch as it was unusually static. While, on paper, this might’ve been conceived as a device to forge focus and escalate tension, it proved rather aggravating in practice. In surrendering to an intensively art-directed, slightly avant-garde idea, insofar as having non-participatory players standing, like statues, at angles, on stage and almost off, Evans has left me conflicted. I like the thought, which presumably wants us to feel the imminence of these either characters. but, again, in practice, it proves rather distracting.

I needn’t have worried. At least not about the stasis. For this, while not entirely mitigated, is overcome by the quality of performance, especially McClements’, which is worth double the price of admission in its own right. I do worry, in the final analysis, however, that this production may’ve leaned just a little too heavily in the direction comedy, bordering on parody. While this serves to leaven what might otherwise prove, in the modern day, a tale too, too tragic, by half, to sustain credibility, it also risks obscuring nuance and trivialising the work. For example, do we really sense equivocation in Phedre, over her pseudo-incestuous infatuation, when Theseus is supposed dead?

There are tributes due for craft. Paul Jackson’s lighting design casts an entirely appropriate sombreness over the entire, sordid proceedings.

Anna Cordingley’s costumes seemed a little also-ran, for mine, but her set was a work of a savant: a palatial residence, lent an aura of permanence and indestructibility by stout Doric columns, counterpointed by a gaping hole one ceiling, rendering the royal household akin to a WW2 ruin. For all their divine invocations, however, none of the protagonists seems to see, or acknowledge, this portent of doom, anymore than the rubble gathered in corners.

Kelly Ryall’s composition is magnificent; as powerful and awe-inspiring as Zeus. Not so much because of the almighty, aurally assaulting swells that pertained, here and there; no, the most striking aspect was the subtle, barely detectable, haunting, ominous breath of sound that permeated much of the action.

And let’s not forget Ted Hughes’ translation, or adaptation, or both, which, one intuits, is rather robustly ratifies and stratifies Racine’s somewhat softer text.

While I feel a few of Evans’ notions may be lost in translation, even collectively, they represent but a scintilla of doubt. All in all, Bell’s co-artistic director’s fingerprints ensure provocative interest (not to mention a number of diverting performances from a boldly diverse cast). The very fact questions are inspired bears witness to that. Bell tolls for Phedre. And thee.

The details: Phedre is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until June 29. Tickets at the venue website.

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