Written in 1996, Sarah Kane’s second play Phaedra’s Love is a work loosely inspired by Seneca’s Phaedra, but dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age. This story of a stepmother’s illicit and doomed love for her stepson was originally told in Euripides’ Hippolytus and is probably best known in the form of Racine’s Phèdre. Kane’s typically subversive take on the classical subject matter is anti-heroic as befitting a cynical world where people no longer believe in lofty ideals.
While her long-absent husband King Theseus has been fighting war abroad, Phaedra finally declares her feelings for his son Hippolytus. But after he has rebuffed her, by not only making it clear he has no interest in her, but by telling her he has slept with her daughter Strophe, who he says also slept with Theseus on their wedding night, Phaedra commits suicide leaving a note claiming that Hippolytus has raped her. As a result of the royal scandal the people rise up against the regime.
Kane described Phaedra’s Love as ‘my comedy’, and its barbed wit and gross-out sex and violence certainly seem more akin to black comedy than revenge tragedy. As its ambivalent title implies, Kane’s play – unlike Seneca’s – is as much about Hippolytus as Phaedra, with neither character here having any redeeming features. Phaedra’s grand passion is reduced to needy compulsion, while Hippolytus’ blow-job sex addict is far from being a clean-living role model. And the unruly commoners baying for blood seem to be just looking for an excuse to sate their bestial urges.
However, director Bronwen Carr’s attempts to make references to our own Royal Family and the recent urban riots are unconvincing, while the interaction between the protagonists falls flat, though the contrasting solemnity of the funeral and anarchy of the lynch mob scenes are well executed. Designer Anna Bliss Scully’s ironic family photo collage and agitated crowd projections give some context, with the flames of Phaedra’s cremation suggesting the forthcoming conflagration in the streets.
The cast appear uncomfortable about their approach to their roles, uncertain in tone. There is little sense of agonized conflict or intense passion in Joanna Roth’s Phaedra, so her destructive actions seem merely gratuitous. And it’s impossible to have any empathy for Hippolytus’ sleazy, nihilistic Nicholas Shaw, slumped in an armchair surrounded by detritus watching violent movies while he mechanically masturbates and chomps burgers. Rupert Holliday Evans plays a warning Doctor and dodgy Priest as well as the vengeful Theseus, while Emma Keele is the ill-fated Strophe.
This Reduced Circumstances production fails to make a strong case for a relatively slight and no longer shocking work which falls between Kane’s two masterpieces of in-yer-face theatre Blasted and Cleansed.