Oh my wife what have you done?
It’s not a line that playwright Nathan Joe has actually written in this inspired re-imagining of the Euripides classic but nevertheless it is the underlying, and at times overwhelming, sentiment of this epic tale.
The story is set in Athens where we find a Queen abandoned and alone. Phaedra (Fiona Mogridge) has caught a fever and her husband and king, Theseus (Geoff Allen), has been gone so long that he is all but presumed dead. However, he does have an heir, the young and haughty Hippolytus (Paul Trimmer) who is the progeny of his father’s hot-blooded entanglement with an Amazonian Queen. The play opens as we see the prodigal son leave behind the call of nature and the siren of the battlefield to return to his formal duties to the kingdom and his step-mother.
But here he finds a surprise.
Phaedra’s former frigid manner has completely dissolved and she welcomes her step-son with a warmth that radiates an unnatural heat. What follows, in an almost claustrophobic 90 minutes, is a maelstrom of sweltering emotions, interrogations, confessions, admonitions and of course, blatant and unhindered exhibition of the heart, body and mind.
Joe refuses to peddle in binaries of blame and shame and his 90-minute exploration of lust and love is finely layered with nuanced questions and shifting perspectives. The strength of the production is in its writing. Consistently poetic and provocative, Joe successfully manages to propel his narrative forward with crisp and lyrical prose that allows the salacious nature of the material to take on multiple dimensions.
In this Theatrewack production, directed by Patrick Graham, the cast work remarkably well as tight and cohesive unit but the stand-out performer is Fiona Mogridge. She is every inch the regal queen, frustrated by her unfulfilled desires and fuelled by a blaze that seems to be only fanned by the remonstrations of her not-too-innocent nurse, the latter played with alternating tenderness and deliberate calculation by Jacqui Whall.
Paul Trimmer is an excellent choice for Hippolytus, bringing a swagger of worldly wisdom, a moral compass that will be tested and ultimately, a quiet and befitting resignation that is all the more powerful for its dampened ardour. Whall and Trimmer are key players in this game, not of cat-and-mouse, but rather who really is at the mercy of the machinations of the mind.
Geoff Allen also has a remarkable presence as both king and father torn between his wife’s claims and his son’s remonstrations, and in the closing scenes Mark Oughton takes the stage in a brief but captivating plea for justice for his young master.
Set in the traverse, audiences have opportunities to witness each other’s emotions across the narrow corridor and for the most part this works well. Occasionally there is a little too much head swivelling as a result of actors speaking across the length of the space but Rose Mulcare’s simple set, decked in a palette of red white and gold, works effectively and is complemented by Zach Howells’ functional lighting design.
The soundscape however is another matter. Amanda Grace Leo has an impressive voice but the attempts to coerce a chorus into this intimate and sexually latent atmosphere is utterly distracting. This is also compounded by the fact that while Callum Blackmore’s original composition and sound design works well for the most part, together the two sound elements fail to enhance the atmosphere. Silence, on the rare occasions it is permitted, is a welcome relief.
This is Greek tragedy at its best and has all the compulsory elements of love, lust, gore and battles with the gods – but Hippolytus Veiled is also accessible, contemporary and relevant. For anyone who loves a good story and the desire to witness the primal truths of the heart exposed in all its grisly beauty this work is a must-see.