Seneca’s ancient Greek tragedy, telling the tale of Queen Phaedra’s incestuous love, is offered a new life by Sarah Kane’s 1990s adaptation. This production opens with an ironic commentary on the importance of a royal birthday, compared to more "real" problems of unemployment and crime. And soon we are analysing the honoured royal son – laying his flaws bare and taking a closer look at what surrounds him. The obvious question is: who is the most messed up? And the obvious answer is wrong.
Queen Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, is obsessed with her wasteful and apathetic stepson Hippolytus. On his birthday, she gives him a gift of a sexual kind – more for her own satisfaction than his. Yet it only serves to alienate him more, spitefully revealing that he has also had relations with his stepsister, Phaedra’s daughter Strophe. The knowledge that Strophe has slept with her lover (and, indeed, also her husband) pushes Phaedra towards a desperate act, one with tragic repercussions.
The 50-minute length means the play is filled with action, with never a lull in the storytelling. The opening is intriguing – although Hannah Torbitt’s Phaedra does carry the scene by herself, with the doctor who also appears feeling more like a background narrator. Her delivery of conflicting emotions (‘You’re in pain; I adore you’) makes compelling viewing.
Callum Partridge is a convincing Hippolytus, easy to hate, with his potshots at modern day royalty perfectly delivered with a sneer and open disdain. Irony works well throughout Kane's script, and the fact that Hippolytus is not without intellect – he just chooses to be a slob – is brought out well in this production.
But there are weaker elements too. A more convincing Strophe might have done better justice to the part, and the priest’s descent into the very thing he condemns seemed to drag unnecessarily. I also found the use of squirty ketchup as blood rather trite, especially in a small space, with the chance of the odd ketchup spray on to the audience. Admittedly, that's offset to some extent by good stage management in the rest of the scenes; there is effective music in between scene changes, and nice touches to the costumes.
A lot of the play focusses on what is sin and what it means to have sinned. How much love is all right? How much is too much? How elusive are redemption, and absolution? This may not be the most earth-shattering production you'll see this year – but for a heady mix of Greek drama, satire, and sin, it's a solid pick.