Bell Shakespeare’s mission seems to have changed over the years. In the days when you’d see Romeo and Juliet with your classmates and snobbishly roll your eyes at the people who snickered when they kissed, Bell was sticking to works by the man himself.

These days, the company’s desire to bring epic classics a new life reaches further than the plays of the Bard of Avon, and not just because eventually you run out of good ones. Phedre, written in French by Jean Racine and translated by Ted Hughes, is one such play whose life in Australia has for reasons unknown never really taken off. This version, however, is one of the few professional productions ever staged is alive and kicking.

The weight of this epically dense, yet somehow stark text, rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the performers who navigate director Peter Evan’s heavy treatment of such a complex story with ease. Catherine McClements’ Phedre is richly human and despite the presence of the gods, McClements doesn’t self aggrandise the character. The humanity and realness of the queen is starkly apparent and for the most part the other performances contained the same balance of myth and person.

Evan’s vision to bring the work down to the detail and support the rawness of the material is a success, with an excellently realised staging concept (no spoilers!). The sound design, composed with great care by Kelly Ryall, helps to create – and destroy – the world. It is a joy to go to the theatre and have such a classic told in an accessibly way. Phedre is a truly tragic, blood stained and incest-riddled triumph.

3.5/5 stars

BY HOLLY ORKIN

Bell Shakespeare is presenting Phedre at the Sydney Opera House until June 29.

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