Arts: Back with a vengeance

Sarah Kane's Greek tragedy remix gives as good as it gets
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The Independent Culture
Fifty-five minutes into Sarah Kane's new play at the Gate and there's been nothing to write home about bar a single bout of masturbation and two cases of graphic fellatio. Oh, yes, and one brilliant idea. In the plays by Seneca and Euripides, which dramatise Phaedra's incestuous passion for her stepson, the obdurate rock against which the heroine fatally dashes herself is Hippolytus's militant chastity. In Kane's version, too, he spurns love, but this denial expresses itself here not in celibacy but in indiscriminate indulgence.

A grungy, heartless recluse of a prince, Cas Harkins's excellent Hippolytus treats sex much as he treats junk food. The difficulty of how to get into his knickers is no longer much of a problem for Philippa Williams's Phaedra and this throws the emphasis all the more cruelly on her powerlessness to make him love. While his stepmother performs fellatio on him, Hippolytus idly scoffs takeaway fries and his eyes never wander from the television screen.

Belying its title, it is in fact Hippolytus's profound anomie that is the play's most interesting concern. The irony here is that Phaedra's suicide and the note she has left accusing her stepson of rape at last give him something to live for. "I'm doomed," he announces, experimenting with elation, "absolutely fucking doomed." Phaedra must have loved him, he now decides, to have bequeathed him this rousingly absolute fate. TS Eliot, a Christian, wrote not unadmiringly of Baudelaire that he was "man enough to be damned" and this is what Hippolytus aspires to be: to go to his death with defiant impiety unlike the hypocritical priest who comes offering him redemption and winds up giving him a blow-job evidently more satisfying than step-mum's.

I half thought that Kane's laconic, often blackly funny script was going to steer the story in yet another surprising direction and show the royal family saving face in a political cover-up: the note destroyed and Hippolytus, his hope of inverted heroism dashed, put under heavy sedation. But, no, the last 10 minutes or so move into an area where the atrocity-count begins to reach respectable Blasted-like levels as the mob set upon Hippolytus and rape, castration, disembowelment and an orgy of neck-slitting ensues. Kane's highly visceral production seats the audience in the thick of this, so it might be advisable not to wear your best frock.

As with Blasted, I felt that Phaedra's Love was at its least convincing in its attempts to locate sex and violence within a broader political context. We've got used, of late, to the idea of dysfunctional, corrupt royal families. But if this play shows the rot behind the myth, it also demonstrates a populace that is even more despicable in its murderous recriminations. It's almost comic when the priest tells Hippolytus that the stability of the country is more important than his sexual indiscretion, as millions of tabloid-readers would testify. These days, it would take a child-murderer to unleash the sort of violence seen here. A royal on a rape charge would prompt not tragedy but soap opera in excelsis.

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