Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Stone suggests only someone as demonstrably damaged and damaging as Helen (Phaedra), in other words a politician, might pursue self-destruction so relentlessly; and devastate so many. It’s brilliantly achieved elsewhere than with the core relationship.

Written and directed by Simon Stone, Set Designer Chloe Lamford, Costume Design and Associate Set Designer Mel Page, Lighting Design James Farncombe, Composer and Sound Design Stefan Gregory, Intimacy Co-ordinator Ingrid Mackinnon, Casting Alastair Coomer, Associate Director Nimmo Ismall, Dialect Coach Daniele Lydon, Company Voice Work Jeanette Nelson,

Due on NT LiveatHome, May.


Adapting one playwright still tethers you to a version. Simon Stone’s rethinking of say Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016, was still recognisably Lorca’s inspiration.  But a myth worked over by several dramatists over 2100 years releases something else.

So Stone’s Phaedra “a new play after Euripides, Seneca and Racine” opening at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton, also directed by Stone, is far more stone and scissors than the paper on which these plays – with varying degrees of sympathy (Seneca) or condemnation (Euripides) – were inscribed.

So a woman whose rejected desire for her stepson followed by a false rape allegation is even more difficult to present than when Helen Mirren played the Racine version here in 2009. Perhaps Phaedra’s slowly moving away from us, and we might not entirely regret it. Paradoxically Stone’s rightly pointed out the original taboo in Phaedra – treason – has worn thin anyway. It’s not even likely Phaedra was conveniently misogynised as the cougar she’s been since Racine, that even Stone hasn’t eschewed: probably just a few years older than her stepson. The principal crime’s treasonable disloyalty to an arranged marriage. Who cares now? And chilly hunt-obsessed Hippolytus has usually no agency at all. If you remove rape allegations too, what’s compelling?

Stone alters the whole dynamic and writing a complete play of his own takes the core strands of Phaedra’s (now Helen’s) self-destructive drive and makes them Hippolytus’ obsession too. Their actions trace a fearful symmetry only revealed at the end.

We start though with a comedic family dynamic April de Angelis for instance so excels in: indeed you wonder if bleak tragedy might one day repeat itself as farce. Helen (Janet McTeer in a fantastic burring vocal range that dominates the play), is such a bustling high-powered politician she scarcely has time for daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis, a beautifully-detailed, assured stage debut), her IVF frustrations with low-status-playing husband Eric (John MacMillan), who bonds with Helen’s similarly self-deprecating husband, diplomat (ever the) Hugo (Paul Chahidi), whom she’s failed to love.

Both MacMillan and Chahidi bring their characters to flash-points at the same moment late on in the play, with a mesmerically disastrous birthday party where everyone arrives and, terribly, all is revealed to a cataclysmic outfall put in train by several. This isn’t just Helen’s doing, but she and her obsessions are its catalyst. Chahidi particularly enjoys roles in several languages as he transforms and attempts resolutions. Both characters are neatly wrought with Chahidi’s later self engaging too. No longer Hugo he has a past country, and does things differently there, sloughing his eternal diplomacy.

Helen’s desire is triggered as she falls for Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), who turns up for a resolution of his own and further backstory we don’t learn till much later. Bouab’s excellent though Sofiane’s unknowable and tricky. The son of Helen’s long-dead, Moroccan lover who abandoned his wife for her, Sofiane wants answers that involve pursuing Helen too. Not only that, when Isolde, all along overtly interested, makes her move he has to decide what he wants, and jumps. He’s certainly more like his father Achraf (voice in Arabic, with subtitles by Younes Bouab, partly to punctuate scene-changes) than he’d admit or his dead father want.

Helen’s desire for both father and son seems like a dark take on Hideous Kinky, tourist sex bordering on the Orientalism Edward Said was so eloquent about.  Whilst McTeer’s sheer power and Bouab’s wariness doesn’t render a wholly convincing chemistry, there’s more to the brief explosion with Davis and a late outburst.

McTeer though has a gallimaufry of others to irritate – terminally. Indeed it’s the very comprehensiveness of her self-destruction that fascinates more than Helen’s complex lust – graphically described by McTeer as it is. Quite apart from her non-parenting of Isolde, rounding on her at the last in a mesmerising tirade, there’s geeky, clever son Declan (Archie Barnes, a dextrous performance of verbal ducks and dives with his “counter-cultural philosophical rap”), relying on Eric, ultimately traumatised to silence.

Helen thinks nothing too of rendering blow-by-blow to parliamentary colleague Omolara (Akiya Henry, a superb mix of Christian patience with a Westminster stiletto), whose birthday she can’t even remember – decisively not visa-versa. Stone’s way with that party fallout has the ring of Starmer’s party about it too.

Reda (Sirene Saba) speaking French enjoys a key part right at the end, pealing layer on layer of not just self-deceit but a folie a deux, as does Daoud (Nadia Nadif).

In Stone’s Yerma we were closed off from actors by a glass box, framing, begging complicity, but at close quarters. Chloe Lamford’s (and co-designer/costume designer Mel Page’s) glass box renders everything both more distanced, like an aquarium, but also allowing for stunning scene-shifts from plush kitchen and bedroom revolve, well-used on the cusp, through a towering wheatfield, smart restaurant and finally a snow-filled cube with an incline, everything frosting up. James Farncombe ensures the sweep of light-levels enhances storytelling. Stefan Gregory’s sound and composition corrals modernity with an ancient percussive warning.

Whilst that core relationship is a little unexplored – it’s a mutual agon squeezed out by everyone else – the mix of heedless political passion being hijacked by sexual feelings long-buried is convincing. Stone suggests only someone as demonstrably damaged and damaging as Helen, in other words a politician or CEO, might pursue self-destruction so relentlessly; and devastate so many. It’s brilliantly achieved elsewhere than with Sofiane, with satisfying supporting characters. Stone’s Helen, and McTeer’s magnificent performance, ask for another dimension. This Phaedra’s not quite laid to rest.