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Phaedra(s) review at the Barbican Theatre – ‘eye-poppingly misjudged’

Isabelle Huppert and Gael Kamilindi in Pheadra(s) at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Pascal Victor
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The first hour of this nearly four-hour production is so dismally awful that, by the end, even after a steep improvement, the memory of it has the quality of a bad dream.

Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe’s Phaedra(s) arrives at the Barbican as part of this year’s LIFT festival, having premiered earlier this year in Paris. Performed in French with English surtitles, this is essentially an interrogation of the Greek myth of Phaedra, wife of Theseus, who kills herself after accusing her stepson Hippolytus of rape.

That legend – and the casting of Phaedra as a sexually shameful figure – provides the foundation for a show that incorporates three different perspectives, based on the work of three distinct writers: Wajdi Mouawad, Sarah Kane and JM Coetzee.

Award-winning director Krzysztof Warlikowski has tackled Greek myth several times during his career, but this production frequently sags under the compendious weight of ill-focused ideas. At its worst, it has the hollow aesthetic slickness of an 80s music video.

The first take on Phaedra is based on Mouawad. On the Barbican’s cavernous stage – bare except for a bed, a shower on the back brick wall and a couple of sinks to the side – we watch Isabelle Huppert writhe around.

From bloodied knickers to the bit with a man dressed as a dog, it feels like parody without self-awareness, cliché masquerading as meaning. In particular, dancer Rosalba Torres Guerrero’s bikini-clad, high-heeled interludes are eye-poppingly misjudged as a metaphor for, well, anything. They’re also endless.

Things gets better with the shift to Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. Kane’s dark, playful humour prods the production into life, evoking a corrosively deadened world in a glass cube of savage privilege, where Andrzej Chyra’s Hippolytus fucks socks. The shower scene from Psycho plays on slo-mo repeat on a TV.

The production works here because it actually has something to say – about men, women and violence. Warlikowski’s stylised staging is thankfully sharpened by Kane’s unflinching portrait of hypocrisy – one full of deliberate excess and bloodied irony. It flays the myth of Phaedra all the way to its misogynistic bones.

And Huppert – who now gets to do more than just scream at us – is superb as a wife-on-the-shelf. She’s a last-nerve Phaedra, one teacup-shake away from breakdown, encased in a pink two-piece. Her performance – almost clownish at times – is elastically uncanny.

The final ‘act’ turns Coetzee’s 2003 novel about fictional author Elizabeth Costello (Huppert) into an on-stage interview. Spliced with Euripides and film scenes focused on female sexuality, it’s a philosophical log-jam. Like the entire production, it has its moments – but sometimes also makes you want to bury your head in your hands.

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Infuriating take on Greek myth containing some eye-poppingly misjudged choices