Helen (a dazzling Janet McTeer, meticulous at drip-feeding us her downfall), has gathered her doting, know-it-all husband Hugo (a spot-on Paul Chahidi), her precocious teenage son Declan (Archie Barnes) her unhappily married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis, natural in her professional stage debut) and Isolde’s ‘softboi’ husband Eric (John MacMillan) for a Deliveroo-ed in dinner at the family’s pied-à-terre in London that’s bound to be uncomfortable.
Cast of Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Joining the family for the first time is Sofiane (a compelling Assaad Bouab), who has travelled to the UK from Morocco with grievances to air. He blames Helen for stealing his father away from his mother and believes their affair led to his death. While not Helen’s stepson per se, Sofiane has fostered Oedipal fantasies about her since childhood, and Helen, dissatisfied in her own married life, is more than happy to indulge them, recognising in Sofiane a strong resemblance to her lost lover.
Sense an affair coming on? You’re on the money. But Helen isn’t the only family member Sofiane becomes entangled with, and Stone’s drama becomes farcical before it descends into the tragedy we’re primed to expect.
Assaad Bouab and Janet McTeer in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Part of the genius of Stone’s work is his ability to pluck the seeds of contemporary relevance from ancient stories and sow them into the lives of recognisable, present-day characters. At its crux, Stone’s story is about an ageing woman, wistful for her younger years, who’s terrified by the prospect of losing her sexuality and becoming invisible. But he reminds us too that while a wealthy, middle-class woman like Helen might feel she’s hit rock bottom when her affair leads to an almighty blow-up at a restaurant, the stakes can be much higher for those from other countries with different economic circumstances. Helen's revenge on Sofiane leads to his deportation and worse at the hands of Moroccan authorities.
The drama unfolds inside Chloe Lamford’s glass-boxed stage, not dissimilar to that which trapped Billie Piper in Yerma, only here, it’s gutted and refilled with different gorgeous, naturalistic interiors between scenes. There are bedrooms, kitchens, wheat fields and a restaurant (complete with diners!) among the sets, and while the changeovers mean prolonged moments with the audience plunged into darkness, it’s a remarkably slick operation, considering.
Between its clever writing, stunning staging and all round first-rate performances, this Phaedra is a must.
|What||Phaedra, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
01 Feb 23 – 08 Apr 23, 7:30 PM – 10:15 PM
|Price||£20 - £89|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|