Phaedra(s), presented with Odéon–Théâtre de l’Europe, shocks, confuses, and invigorates. The production is based on the Classical tale of Phaedra, who marries Theseus, the hero who famously defeats the Minotaur. Phaedra, however, soon falls deeply in love with Theseus’ son, Hippolytus. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production startlingly revives this almost-forgotten tale. It becomes a tale of pure anguish, of unrelenting grief, and, at times, of cutting humour. It is, unarguably, an utter tour de force.

Warlikowski brings together three different versions of Phaedra’s tale: Wajdi Mouawad’s modernised translation, Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, and J Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Isabelle Huppert, in the titular role, portrays these three distinct Phaedras. Huppert’s skill is endlessly recognised, demonstrated by her two Best Actress awards at both the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals. Unsurprisingly Huppert is a master of execution. She grips the audience, grabs them by the scruff of the neck, and forces them to behold the immense gravity of Phaedra’s plight. She is a chameleon of such artistic grace and ease that she is able to, at once, embody all three different versions of Phaedra and also create within herself a new, untangled, and uninhibited Phaedra. Huppert’s talent knows no limits, and this production certainly benefits from her daring approach.

If Huppert works as a chameleon, then so must her surroundings, including her fellow cast members. The set begins simply, with one bed, a sink, a wall made of mirrors, and Huppert’s own recorded image projected onto the back wall. In the first presentation of Phaedra’s story, Mouawad’s version, Huppert’s shrill voice pierces the audience’s conscience as she declares the pain of her forbidden love. She frantically cleans her leaking menstrual blood from herself, before Gael Kamilindi, first a dog wearing a blue fur coat then eventually playing Hippolytus himself, enters and they proceed to simulate fellatio. This heart-wrenching and absorbing introduction to the impossibility of Phaedra’s desire is an unavoidable cry out of agony.

However, in what is surely the highlight of the production, Huppert transforms swiftly into the prim and pastel-clad stepmother for Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. A large, transparent cube emerges from the right wall of the stage in which Hippolytus sits, self-exiled in his room like a stereotypical teenager, cleaning snot with his dirty socks. Andrzej Chyra is a confident Hippolytus, performing unwaveringly at Huppert’s side, and eliciting the perfect mix of pity and frustration from the audience. Before Phaedra enters the cube, she lists Kane’s stage directions which take place after Phaedra enters. When she does finally enter, the audience witness these actions come to life before them. The tale turns into a prophetic one; their transgressive desires become inevitable and inescapable.

Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) is an elaborate portrayal of a classical tale entrenched with its own complications. It takes a firm and bold look into the eye of forbidden sexual desire, and does not shy away from presenting its full force. It is truly an unforgettable performance and, indeed, experience. The evening was aptly ended with Huppert calling out amongst the four rounds of applause, “Everyone in Europe loves you. Stay with us.” Phaedra(s), a tale about the threat to family unity, seemingly encourages such unity.

Phaedra(s) is playing at the Barbican Centre until 18 June. For more information and tickets, see The Barbican website. 

Photo: Pascal Victor