If you ever thought student Shakespeare was something to avoid, it might be worth taking a look at Merton Floats’ attempt at Phèdre. Its tediousness, exacerbated by technical flaws, is quite spectacular.
Racine’s play, written in the seventeenth century, draws heavily on classical predecessors. For unconvincing reasons this version is set in 1960s Italy, which is supposed to be brought out by the stark majesty of the venue, Merton’s chapel. Present-day high Anglicanism equates to twentieth century Italian Catholicism, the reasoning would appear to run. The bland, generally monochrome, contemporary costumes do little to contribute to any specificity of time or space, and nor does the set, which – generously – comprises of two chairs and a table.
The choice of venue is perhaps the most problematic part of this production. Merton’s chapel, renowned in the choral world for its excellent acoustics, is rather unsuited to drama. Lines have to be delivered slowly, or they risk being swallowed up in the echoes of the cavernous building. At numerous points during the play, especially when moments of anguish are reached, you are hard pressed to understand what is being said, a problem that is only compounded by the decision to put the seating in traverse.
If lines become inaudible, the actors’ expressions become more important. But, here too, Phèdre has been set up to be as incomprehensible as possible. Four stark white lights are the only additions that have been made to the gentle background lighting of the chapel, and they have been angled in such a way as to glare right into the audience’s eyes.
But on the occasions when the actors are both visible and audible, you realise you have not missed too much. Bridget Dru, playing Phaedra, is competent enough, but Hugh Johnson, who plays Hippolytus, spends more time engaged in repetitive hand gestures than in expressing anything, and when Theseus (Jonathon Oakman) asks his son, “Traitor, how dare you show yourself to me?” Oakman seems bored rather than emotionally involved.
The highlight of this production has to be the gong sounded right at the end, which must count as the single well thought-out use of the venue. The sound echoes deliciously around, and you realise you are free to leave at long last.