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Phaedra review: Janet McTeer is riveting in a wry, stylish take on sexual obsession

Six years after ‘Yerma’, director Simon Stone puts another old story into a giant glass box with thrilling and maddening results

Alice Saville
Saturday 11 February 2023 17:27 GMT
John Macmillan and Janet McTeer in ‘Phaedra’
John Macmillan and Janet McTeer in ‘Phaedra’ (Johan Persson)

Six years after he put Billie Piper in a giant glass box for his smash hit take on Yerma, Simon Stone is back with another uncompromising, thrilling story of a tormented woman, lifted from the classics. This time round it’s formidable actor Janet McTeer who’s behind the glass, taking chunks out of her unfortunate tank-mates with the appetite of a ravening piranha.

Stone takes Ancient Greek drama Phaedra less as his source material, and more as his approximate starting point for a play that skewers middle-class hypocrisy, colonialism, and the supreme, all-destroying selfishness of sexual obsession. Here, McTeer plays Helen, a wealthy middle-aged politician who we first see glowing in a silk shirt and pleasurably illuminated by the desire of the men around her. Her husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) brings her a hessian bag of food shopping in his teeth, like a soft-eyed labrador with a tennis ball. She kisses her relentlessly nice son-in-law Eric (John MacMillan) full on the mouth. And her ex-lover’s son Sofiane (Assaad Bouab) calls her his “Viking goddess”, his childhood memories of her giving her an almost supernatural sexual power in his eyes.

Stone’s dialogue is sparky, hilarious and lightning-quick, its strands interlocking and tangling together like electric cables. He’s working with weighty themes like lust and fate, but he constantly destabilises them with ironic little touches: “that’s really f***ing deep”, says Phaedra’s nerdy 15-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes), stifling a discussion on the nature of free will as surely as if he’d sprayed the room with Lynx Africa.

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