Just a couple of months ago, the Riverside Studios played host to a production of Racine's Phèdre, starring Sheila Gish as the heroine tortured with desire for her virginal stepson. Now the venue presentsTo You, The Birdie!, a high-tech deconstruction of the myth by America's celebrated Wooster Group, brought to London by Lift.
There have been thought-provoking reinventions of Phèdre in recent years. In her play Phaedra's Love, Sarah Kane recast Hippolytus as a slacker whose body was available to anyone prepared to pleasure it. His indifference was the rock against which his love-stricken stepmother dashed herself.
The Wooster Group's take on the story does not offer such penetration, despite the clever controlling image in Elizabeth LeCompte's production. Fortune is represented by a strenuous game of badminton, with a bare-torsoed, shuttlecock-bashing Hippolytus (Ari Fiaklos) unaware that, for all his protestations of purity, the referee in the corner is Venus. Mirror screens suggest a world of homoerotic narcissism. When Willem Dafoe's Theseus returns from his labours, it's as a preening muscleman with a string of masseuses in tow. He and Hippolytus roll round the poolside in an Oedipal wrestle.
But the force of these images is dissipated by the production's arch jokiness. It begins with a scene between Hippolytus and his equally half-dressed tutor Theramenes, where our attention is constantly distracted from the verbal exchange by the way this pair keep idly rummaging under their little skirts to fiddle with their balls. This activity is presented on a video screen which cuts the living actors off at the knees, creating a droll visual split – though to what higher purpose it is hard to say.
Phèdre is one of the repertoire's great female roles, yet heremany of her speeches are relayed by a male reader (Scott Shepherd), who whispers them into a microphone in a pouting, queeny manner. Kate Valk's heroine veers between a gay fantasy of the role and a deranged invalid wired up to a wheelchair. And her confidante, Oenone (Sheena See) commits suicide by sticking her head down the royal commode. A watery grave of sorts, I suppose.
Some of the lines in Paul Schmidt's text impress with their tragic grandeur. "I had Venus like a virus in my veins" communicates vividly Phèdre's sense that she has contracted the disease of lust from her mother, Pasiphae, a one-woman cock-and-bull story. And you have to acknowledge that the production is a marvel of technical precision. But the deflationary tactics too often seem footling. To You, the Birdie! gives Phèdre the bird.
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