Some theatre classics get under the skin, enter the blood stream and become part of the artistic consciousness. In Australia, for reasons unknown, Phedre has not been one of them.
An intense tale of mythological demigods, sex, love, curses, bloodiness, incest, slaughter and family, it remains a mystery to many a theatergoer as to why Phedre hasn’t cultivated a resonance similar to that it has garnered overseas, particularly in Europe. It is a colossal work, loved most in France were writer Jean Racine brings the fabled milieu to life, and a work best known globally in its free verse form, translated and written by Ted Hughes.
Story goes: Phedre is a descendent of Sun God Helios and is married to King Theseus who is AWOL, possibly in the underworld. When rumours of the demigod king’s death reach the kingdom, the beasts of lust and desire break loose and Phedre’s forbidden love for her stepson sets off a series of devastating events.
Director of Bell Shakespeare’s version, Peter Evans, is seeking to explore why the play hasn’t been received with the same level of success on our shores and aims to deliver a reinvigorated take on the original. He aims to re-present the little-known epic in a new light. “I find it fascinating because this is one of the most famous plays in France and all these writers have had a look at it. There have been thousands and thousands of productions but very few Australians I think would’ve ever seen it,” says Evans.
“It’s exciting for us as a company to be putting on such a great play that people have never seen! It’s exciting for me because when you come to a Shakespeare you’re coming to something you’ve seen before, you know the story but there’s a different kind of interest when you’re doing something people don’t know. You can sit in the audience and feel people react to the twists and turns in the plot that they’ve never seen before. It’s wonderful.”
And there are twists and turns aplenty – most of the characters are related to gods or are demigods themselves. Despite the characters’ mythological status, they are also fully realised and very human. “The characters are aware of their legacy, they’re aware of their fame, they’re aware that their actions will go down in history, which is a burden for them as well and yet they’re people too,” says Evans. It’s this balance between gods and people, story and history that Evans is hoping to find in the staging of this production.
Now to the play’s unique production. The work is set on it’s own square platform on top of the existing stage at the Sydney Opera House’s playhouse. By leaving the edges empty, Evans hopes the audience will be captured by the stunning story but never unaware of the storyteller. He wants the text laid bare and the dialogue to be comfortingly raw. “We stick it on a block that is sort of in the middle of the stage. We leave the edges of the stage free so we know we’re dipping in and out of this piece of theatre, in and out of the story,” says Evans, “so you can get involved with the characters but you’re always aware of the storyteller too.”
Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre is a tale of love, fate, gods and kings. It is also a story of people and of humanity told by a director whose primary goal is to decode and re-present the theatrical prowess of a complex play often misunderstood by Australian audiences.
BY HOLLY ORKIN