Barbican Theatre, London (****)
Art house cineastes and followers of European `high art’ will thrill to a combination of cinema ghouls (the shower scene from Psycho), desire (Pasolini’s Teorema) and gore (the stylised lobotomy scene from Graeme Clifford’s Frances). Others may also delight in a spot of necrophilia, incest, fellatio and general debauchery. Ah, I can feel a bout of philistinism coming on…
But that’s what Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) brings out in his multi-form meditation on love and desire based on Euripides’ original story of Phaedre’s illicit love for her stepson but reframed within scripts by Sarah Kane (Phaedra’s Love), Lebanese-French writer Wajdi Mouawad and the famed South African Booker prize-winning author, J M Coetzee.
It’s a bizarre three and a half hours of human behaviour at its most debased and naked, sustained at every point by the passion and brilliance of Isabelle Huppert.
What it must have been like witnessing Sarah Bernhardt, or even Edith Piaf at their height is the experience of seeing the pint-sized, electric-wired Huppert putting herself – and us – through hell.
In the process she graduates from a cool, catwalk dressed Aphrodite into a haunted, blood-soaked, vomiting Phaedre, into Sarah Kane’s victim humiliating herself before a porno watching, sated Hippolytus (the equally brilliant Polish actor Andrzej Chyra) and finally, a fast-talking, ironic writer in interview, again with Chrya unrecognisable in specs and warm, welcoming smile.
Behind the technographic big screens, bleak, empty-spaced style, Warlikowski’s is clearly a work of intense, moral gravitas. But as so often, concept overwhelms.
Warlikowski’s graphic indulgences only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate Phaedre’s tragic journey.
But if these Phaedra(s) tend to appal as much as they irritate, there are also some stunning moments; middle-Eastern song sung at full throttle, dancer, Rosalba Torres Guerrero’s asexual versatility, the poignant beauty of Phaedre reaching coitus with the young mixed race Hippolytus (Gaël Kamilindi), full-screened and faces only. And tantalisingly, Huppert sublime doing a snip from Racine’s Phaedre.
Disturbing as it is, it makes British theatre look dismally unambitious and parochial. As Huppert, stepping forward, put it at the end with Europhile fervour, `we have something to tell you. Stay with us.’ We shall, we shall…if we can.
After Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad and J M Coetzee
Part of LIFT 2016
Performed in French with English surtitles
Aphrodite, Phaedra, Elizabeth Costello: Isabelle Huppert
Strophe: Agata Buzek
Hippolyte 2, Senior Lecturer: Andrzej Chyra
Thésée, Doctor, Priest: Alex Descas
Hippolyte 1, Dog: Gaël Kamilindi
Oenone, Arab singer: Norah Krief
Arab dancer: Rosalba Torres Guerrero
Musician (electric guitar): Grégoire Léauté
Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Dramaturg: Piotr Gruszczysnki
Set & Costume Design: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting Design: Felice Ross
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Video: Denis Guéguin
Choreography: Claude Bardouil, Rosalba Torres Guerrero
Make-up and hair: Sylvie Cailler, Jocelyne Milazzo
Composer of on-stage music: Bruno Helstroffer
Sound Design: Thierry Jousse
Costumes for Isabelle Huppert provided by Les Maisons Dior, Givenchy, Saint-Laurent by Hedi Slimane
Presented by the Barbican and LIFT
Co-produced by the Barbican, LIFT, Comédie de Clermont-Ferrand – Scène nationale, Les Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg, Théâtre de Liège – Belgium, Onassis Cultural Center – Athens
World premiere at Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Paris, May 17, 2016
First perf at Barbican Theatre, London, June 8, 2016; runs to June 18, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate June 2016 and slightly amended here