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Theatre review: Phaedra's Love 
7th-Oct-2011 09:28 pm
Amphithavatar
I've not always been entirely convinced by Sarah Kane's work but her second play, Phaedra's Love, revived by Reduced Circumstances at the Arcola's Studio 1 (sadly back to its awkward thrust configuration, though the rusty industrial pillars in the stage area at least look appropriate to the production this time around) makes a better case for the playwright's confrontational style. Perhaps it's the use of a tried and tested story that helps give a structure to Kane's cries of despair. Theseus' queen Phaedra (Joanna Roth) is still obsessively in love with her stepson, but this isn't the beautiful athletic youth of Euripides and Racine. Instead Hippolytus is fat (according to the script - in fact apart from a bit of a paunch Nicholas Shaw is pretty damn hot,) unwashed and lazy, sleeping through the day and prowling the palace at night in a fug of self-loathing. The first few minutes of the hour-long running time are spent watching Hippolytus eat two burgers in front of the TV, giving himself a break between them by wanking into a sock. The people still seem to love him, if not as much as they once did, but once the rejected Phaedra falsely accuses him of rape before killing herself, they turn on him. This is where it becomes clear Hippolytus is the character Kane is identifying with - the prospect of being lynched is the first thing to bring him out of his jaded depression. Here, his stepsister Strophe's (Emma Keele) testimony could have cleared him, but instead of the curse that doomed him in the original, it's his own choice to accept a spectacular death as a way out from a life he's become sick of (the playwright was, of course, to kill herself three years after writing this.)

Written in 1996, the play's references to a public getting emotionally caught up in a royal death were to become more relevant the following year with Princess Diana's death, and director Bronwen Carr makes use of this in her revival. She's also taken into account last summer's UK riots and, after the majority of the play has been spent with just four actors, a 15-strong ensemble appears to take us out of the palace and into the streets: Hippolytus torn apart not by the legend's wild horses, but by wild hoodies (set and costume design by Anna Bliss Scully.) As the vultures circle over his body, he finally finds something to get excited about. Kane described this play as her attempt at a comedy (what, the baby-eating wasn't meant to be LOLarious?) and actually there are a lot of very dark laughs along the way, though you're hardly likely to come out of it with a skip in your step. The short running time does leave a lot underexplored, most notably Theseus' (Rupert Holliday Evans) turning against his son, but while still being best suited to the strong-stomached this is the most accessible Sarah Kane production I've seen so far.

Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane is booking until the 22nd of October at Arcola Studio 1.
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