October 5, 2010

What started out as a germ of an idea over a bottle of wine between the artistic director of Rough Magic Lynne Parker and composer Ellen Cranitch has found its way onto the Project Arts Centre’s main stage as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. A contemporary take on the Phaedra fable, where the titular character falls in love with her stepson with devastating results, everyone from Sarah Kane to Eastenders has sourced it. What is the aim of this latest inspiration? Composer Cranitch and writer Hillary Fannin speak to Totally Dublin.

How did you first get involved with the Phaedra project?


Rough Magic approached me. Ellen was already on board and they decided it was time to look for a writer. Someone to work on text rather than music.

Lynne Parker came to me a couple of years ago with a vague idea of exploring the story of Phaedra as it was represented in an opera that was composed in 1733 by Rameau. A lot of the music was very beautiful and a lot of it was reminiscent of traditional Irish music. And this jumped out at her as interesting from a musical standpoint.
Is that the musical direction you have taken then? One that explores the link between opera and traditional Irish music?


Not really, no. We departed very much from that idea. When Hillary came on board to write this story it took on its own energy and what we have come up with is a completely new piece with an occasional nod back to the original opera. The musicians come from a traditional background though-fiddle, harp, accordion and percussion- but it’s a new form with a respectful nod to the source.

Is it a musical with words or a play with music?

That is the million dollar question really. I don’t think any of us can give you a direct answer to that because we are not sure what to call it ourselves. What it is the myth of Phaedra, Euripides creation, which a writer called Racine wrote a version of in the 1800s. Around the same time a French composer called Rameau wrote an opera based on the same legend or myth. So Lynn Parker’s idea was to find a contemporary composer and a contemporary writer who would take those two pieces of work, the opera and the play, and put them together in an ultra modern Irish context.

It’s not a musical; it’s not an opera. It’s not sung the whole way through. But the music is a driving force for the action and the energy. The musicians and the singers are very much a part of the action and part of the narrative. They are an intrinsic part of the whole experience. It’s not like anything any of us have done before.

It’s such a rich source of inspiration for artists. Everybody from Euripides to Sara Kane has had a go. What is Rough Magic bringing to the table?


I don’t think we are setting out to have a unique take. The impulse for doing this piece of work was that the opera and the text were in existence and they were very good spring boards for looking at contemporary Ireland. But we were not saying “oh were going to write a play about contemporary Ireland using Phaedra”. It was a very open muscular piece of work that lends itself to interpretation.

Can you give me a basic outline as to what your play is about?


A woman called Phaedra, who is pretty unhappy in her life, falls in love with her stepson and his name is Hippolytus, and her pursuit of that love just leads to all sorts of mayhem really. We have set it in a contemporary Irish setting, a family like any other family, in Dublin with money, or at least a notion of money.

How did the devising process work?


Myself, Ellen, Lynne and our dramaturg Maureen White were involved in this process. Between the four of us we hammered it out. It’s been a very slow process. We’ve been at this for a couple of years. Sometimes it was the four of us sitting around trying to figure out what it needs, other times Maureen and I would go off, and then Ellen and I would go off.


Hillary and I worked separately for a while and we found it wasn’t the best way of working so we took ourselves off to an office space above Rough Magic and put the head down over the course of two weeks and wrote the guts of it.

Why does Greek theatre continue to inspire writers today?


The stories are muscular, dynamic stories. Essentially they are about people and emotions. Emotions don’t change. How we display emotions might change but all those things that motivated people 500 years ago are still alive and kicking.


We are all citizens of this world and the stories and motivations from a musical or a play that was written 500 years ago…we can still relate to them so much.

Rough Magic’s Phaedra

30 September – 10 October
Project Arts Centre


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