Simon Stone’s Phaedra: Visceral, Immediate and Intensely Convincing

George Rodosthenous*

Phaedra by Simon Stone, directed by Simon Stone. February 1 to April 8, 2023. National Theatre (London).

One of the misunderstandings or misassumptions about my work is that there’s improvisation. There really isn’t. There’s me getting to know people, us talking about the play that we want to do, us talking about what might happen in the play, and then me working on making sure that it sounds as realistic, real and moving as possible.”

Simon Stone in programme for Phaedra (2023)

Walking along the South Bank towards the National Theatre to watch Simon Stone’s Phaedra (2023), I was debating whether he would be inspired primarily by Euripides’ Hippolytus Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled) or Hippolytus Stephanophoros (Hippolytus Garlanded). This should not have been of concern, since Stone has created a mélange of several versions from Euripides, Seneca and Racine to give birth to a thrilling piece of composed theatre, keeping the title Phaedra, instead of the protagonist’s new name Helen (Hippolytus becomes Sofiane). This review will particularly focus on the dual role of Simon Stone as director and author of the script of this production.

Three Approaches in Re-imagining Greek Tragedy

I will approach this production by revisiting my proposition that there are three significant approaches in re-imagining or adapting Greek Tragedy: re-locating the action in a contemporary/ localized setting, domesticating the action, and incorporating an inventive use of scenography (Rodosthenous, 2016). Stone’s adaptation manifests all three approaches: the action is set somewhere just outside London (and not within a palace) and this “transadaptation”—a process that does not only directly translate a text to a second language, but also changes the content to accommodate any linguistic and cultural differences—is a device that includes several in-jokes about the proximity of Sofiane’s flat in Birmingham, which brings the audience culturally even closer to the narrative. The inter-domestic distance in the original myth is re-conceptualised here as a relationship between the two biggest cities in the U.K..

Sofiane meets Helen’s family for the first time. Cast of Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Stone very carefully avoids any references to rape, bridges the age gap between the lovers and removes any position of power. In his words, Sofiane is simply “her ex-lover’s son.” This enhances the believability of the narrative and domesticates the action: there are no Kings and Queens in this version; it presents an incestuous family which now involves mother and daughter lusting after the same man. There is no ethical judgment by Stone about Helen and her (post-)menopausal intense desire. The writer/director leaves that to the audience, who become both voyeurs and judges of her actions.

The first kiss between Sofiane and Helen. Assaad Bouab (Sofiane) and Janet McTeer (Helen) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Scenographically, the entire piece is transported from the palace into some luxuriously designed spaces in Chloe Lamford’s set design. The design develops further Stone’s obsession of using a voyeuristic enclosed glass box on a revolve (see The Wild Duck, Yerma etc). The adaptation is in five acts, each of which has a sumptuous design and presents a different space (Helen’s lavish house, an external landscape outside London, Sofiane’s bare apartment in Birmingham, an expensive restaurant in London and another snow-filled external landscape in Morocco). The grandeur of set design matches the scale of the adaptation and proves that it would be next to impossible to have such an impressive structure anywhere outside the National Theatre.

Helen and Sofiane in a passionate embrace. Janet McTeer (Helen) and Assaad Bouab (Sofiane) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Chemistry and Unadulterated Sensuality

The last adaptation of Phèdre to be seen at the National was Racine’s, directed by Nicholas Hytner in 2009 and featuring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper. One of the main differences between the two productions, beyond 2009’s seemingly clinical classicism, is that in Stone’s Phaedra the chemistry between Helen and Sofiane is painfully and explicitly manifested. There is raw emotion, unadulterated sensuality and a strong sense of repressed desire in Janet McTeer’s Helen (Phaedra) which transforms her into delivering a mercurial performance. McTeer is able to command every word, every glance, every single interaction with the other characters and blend them into a deeply lived experience.

In Sofiane’s Birmingham flat after their first disagreement. Assaad Bouab (Sofiane) and Janet McTeer (Helen) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Assaad Bouab’s Sofiane is the opposite to Hippolytus. He adores women and does not hesitate to have a relationship with both Helen and her daughter Isolde. We even find out he has a wife, Reba (Sirine Saba), back in Morocco. As an actor, Bouab has this unique ability to be at the same time controlled but also ferociously political, making his connection with both women electric and ultimately heart-breaking. Sofiane’s final choice takes place at Helen’s birthday party, when he shows up with Isolde and they announce their future plans. It’s at this point that there is an irreversible narrative turn—Helen has lost him for ever. This is not a private moment where she can process the loss on her own, it is in front of her husband, son, daughter, daughter’s former partner, her friend Omolara (Akiya Henry) and the entire restaurant. And it’s at this point that Stone’s expert manipulation of emotion is evident—he takes a scene of extreme comedy and transforms it into one of extreme pain. This roller coaster of emotions made some audience members gasp, but it was also a valuable tool in working within the five-act structure. The adaptation’s device of elevating secondary characters is extremely successful here and offers enhanced moments of narrative and pace.

Sofiane discusses politics with Isolde. Assaad Bouab (Sofiane) and Mackenzie Davis (Isolde) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Polyphony, Counterpoint and Musicality of the Text

A striking feature of Stone’s adaptation is his acute awareness of the musicality of his text. His writing has pace, with much overlapping of conversations, and possesses simultaneously an edgy and funny perspective. During the development process he invites the actors to discuss the play with him. He gets acquainted with the sound of their voices, their inflections, their ways of speaking, then goes away and writes (composes) especially for those voices. He confirms that “[t]his time, I’m writing and l’m hearing it straight away, sometimes within 15 minutes of having written the words l’m hearing it, and it’s alive and I can adjust it or respond to it. It has an economy of practice.” (Simon Stone in programme for Phaedra, 2023).

Eric greets Helen at her birthday party. John Macmillan (Eric) and Janet McTeer (Helen) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

The overall effect is one where the sound of the voices becomes a polyphony of several contrapuntal lines. This creates a very dense overlapping of dialogue which is impressively frenetic and closely resembles realistic conversations. An instance of this is when Helen enthusiastically proceeds to welcome her daughter Isolde’s partner Eric (John MacMillan); amongst a barrage of dialogue exchanges taking place between Helen’s acutely funny son Declan (Archie Barnes) and his father Hugo (Paul Chahidi). Shouting over all this, Isolde strongly encourages her mother not to kiss Eric on the lips. Helen immediately proceeds to give Eric a kiss on the lips. And the audience is in stitches. One could accuse Stone’s adaptation of being extreme; that it strays, inappropriately, into farce and that it eventually distracts the narrative. On the other hand, this heightens the emotional journey and strengthens the stakes. What is more, aren’t extremes a compelling feature of Greek Tragedy?

Helen in Morocco looking for Sofiane. Janet McTeer (Helen) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

There has been a plethora of Greek Tragedy productions recently in the U.K., such as Punchdrunk’s richly immersive experience The Burnt City, Iphigenia in Splott at the Lyric Hammersmith and Medea at the Soho Place. The Trojan Women, blending Greek Tragedy and pansori, an ancient Korean form of musical storytelling, will be presented at the Edinburgh Festival 2023. Stone’s version of Phaedra stands out and excels because of its ruthless and irreverent adaptation, which ultimately becomes an unforgettable piece of new writing, highlighting the journey of the (post)-menopausal protagonist, giving her voice, space and platform to explore her inner desire and the associated trauma which comes with any rejection, especially an emotional one.

A devastated Helen in Morocco, just before her final scene. Janet McTeer (Helen) in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Previously, Stone has said that he is “stealing whatever [he] need[s] to steal and corrupting whatever [he] need[s] to corrupt to entertain an audience. . .,” stating that he has “no interest in honoring a set of ideas that belong to the past of an audience” (in Naglazas, 2016). This is only partly true, because Stone is evidently a true devotee of Greek Tragedy; using his ears and eyes he creates an exuberant reality to re-tell an ancient story to a modern audience in the most visceral, immediate and intensely convincing way.


Bibliography

Naglazas, Mark. “Feather Duster.” The West Australian, 2016. Accessed 1 April 2023.

Rodosthenous George, ed. Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: Auteurship and Directorial Visions. Methuen Bloomsbury, 2016.

Steiger, Nina. “Redefining Phaedra.” Phaedra Official Programme. National Theatre, February 2023.


*George Rodosthenous is Professor of Theatre Directing and Deputy Head of School at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds. He has edited the books Theatre as Voyeurism: The Pleasures of Watching (Palgrave), Contemporary Approaches to Greek Tragedy: Auteurship and Directorial Visions (Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury), The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen: Critical Approaches from Snow White to Frozen (Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury), Twenty-First Century Musicals: From Stage to Screen (Routledge) and co-edited Greek Tragedy and the Digital (Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury).

Copyright © 2023 George Rodosthenous
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