Phaedra @ The Project Arts Centre

October 7, 2010

When I asked composer Ellen Cranitch and playwright Hillary Fannin to define their current production, Phaedra, as either a play with music or a musical with words they said they couldn’t as they were unsure as to what it was themselves. I thought it was avoidance, to bypass pegging which might avert potential audiences. But having seen it for myself I now understand that what they have done is create something quite different. The music is no longer something to tart up those dreaded awkward scene changes, nor is it an excuse for the cast to break away from the spoken word and fill in the plot with a joyous bout of song and dance. It massages the story, is a character in itself, used to set the mood or reiterate what’s just been said through the angelic odes of the siren like chorus. But it is in unison with Hillary Fannin’s script not apart from it.

It’s the best thing in Lynne Parker’s latest production for her Rough Magic Theatre Company, a modern take on the Euripides myth, inspired by the 17th century opera and the 17th century novel by Racine and Rameau respectively. Fannin’s words are a consolidation of their classical roots and contemporary crudeness (though the foul language can at times seem forced) with an aesthetically pleasing cast breathing life into the tale of a supposedly widowed woman who falls in love with her stepson. Occasionally it is laugh out loud funny but it is let down by the reserved tackling of the text. The cast shimmer and sparkle in their gilded clobber but no one seems to relish the words they have been given or find the physicality to accompany them.

That’s not to say the playing is bad. Far from it. Stephen Brennan (a vile Theseus) is a past master of playing those twisted moneyed men whose souls and psyches have been sullied by the Celtic Tiger. Here he is physically imposing, boo hiss boorish and eerily reminiscent of the lecherous aged suits whose outward demeanor does little to ensconce their private perversions. Sarah Greene (Ismene) and Michelle Forbes (Enone) are terrific as the servants, breaking rank and spitting their barbs at all who cross them, providing the umph missing from most of the lead performances while it falls to Darragh Kelly, subtly involving as ever, to bring the heart to the piece as Theramenes, Hippolytus’s (Alan Leech) love lorn confidant. Gemma Reeves is competent, if dispassionate, as Aricia, the woman who somehow tempts Hippolytus out of his chaste shell while the three gods Artemis, Poseidon and Aphrodite hold the whole thing together snaking about the stage, voicing or confirming the thoughts of the civvies with their soothing, eerie tones. Yet there is a formality in the delivery, which dampens the sparkle of the script.

Fannin is not herself without blame. With the exception of the last two, the characters in this piece are immensely ill natured, with throbbing groins in place of beating hearts. The bartering of lust for love has left this production with a gaping hole where its tragedy should lie, a choice that makes the breathtakingly beautiful Catherine Walker, as the titular Phaedra, ineffective as a heroine. She wallows and wines and throws seductive shapes but when the pants are down we feel nothing for her as she has shown us little more than her perfect veneer. There is some attempt made to explore the father son dynamic, the inherent misogyny in society and the contrast between virility and virginity, but too often it felt like witty banter pissing into a wanton wind.

The whole thing is glacially directed by Lynne Parker who brings no warmth out in these characters, creates no unity and is not aided by John Comiskey’s impressive but inappropriate set, comprised of steel, screen and plastic sheeting which, though evoking the sea side setting, adds distance between us and this world created and compounds the metallic, often lifeless projection of character.

But her innovative playing with form, supplemented by Cranitch’s marvelous score, is worth the price of admission alone, restoring music to its rightful- if costly- place on the stage. The way Crannitch uses the gentlest tap of the bodhran, the pulling of the accordions bellows and faintest blow of the flute to build the sexual tension in one scene to the almost cinematic use of the chorus, which allowed for the changing of scenes without loosing the tension previously built it was invigorating, imaginative and imposing stuff that makes up for weaknesses elsewhere.

The pieces are here to create something memorable. They just haven’t quite got there yet.

Rough Magic Theatre Company

Project Arts Centre

30 Sep – 2 Oct, 7.30pm



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