Full spoilers for Phèdre follow
Phèdre, Jean Racine’s carefully constructed and powerfully visual seventeenth century tragedy, is a text that is familiar to almost every first-year student of French at Oxford. Written entirely in Alexandrine verse, based on Euripides’s Hippolytus and incorporating elements of Seneca’s Phaedra, Racine’s poetry depicts a tale of dark human desires and motivations, in a way that brings the eponymous Phèdre’s fear and guilt to the forefront. The recent production of Ted Hughes’s English translation of Phèdre, directed by Sarah Houllion and Lily Begg, and performed in the New College cloisters, brings this tale of cursed fate, forbidden love, and dynastic crisis to life.
Phèdre is the wife of Theseus, King of Athens, but falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Believing that Theseus had died while he had been away fighting monsters, Phèdre confesses her feelings to Hippolytus. After proclaiming her love, however, she learns that Theseus is in fact alive and on his way back to his family in their home town of Trozen. It also surfaces that Hippolytus is in love with Aricia, who comes from the family of his father’s political enemy. In a state of despair, Phèdre follows the advice of Oenone, her nurse and confidante, and lets her lead Theseus to believe a fabricated story that Hippolytus tried to rape Phèdre. In a rage, Theseus exiles Hippolytus and calls upon mighty Neptune to curse him. Hippolytus subsequently falls into the clutches of a vicious sea monster and perishes. Theramène, Hippolytus’s tutor and confidant, brings the news of the fatal encounter back to Trozen. Phèdre reveals the truth, proclaiming Hippolytus innocent and then dies on stage after taking a Medean poison, shortly after a remorseful Oenone has drowned herself. Theseus, horrified at his lack of judgement, vows to preserve the memory of his son and treat Aricia as his daughter.
From the minute one steps into the open-air theatre, ingeniously set up in the cloister of New College, an atmosphere of the supernatural is apparent. The slowly setting sun illuminated the beautifully intricate stonework with a hazy glow: the perfect backdrop to a play where the characters are descended from Gods, yet are subject to higher forces beyond their control. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, yet highly effective: a single pink chaise-lounge framed by two tables. The seat of many characters at the height of their emotional intensity, it also serves as the deathbed of Phèdre as the poison took its toll. The on-stage musicians, Claire Frampton and Patrick Hall, mark the transition between acts with skilful pieces, conjuring up an ominous sense of foreboding as the tragedy unfolds.
Jeevan Ravindran shines in the role of Phèdre. Capturing every aspect of a character that is ailing in body and mind, a presence that fills the entire stage, Jeevan’s gestures and varying tone of voice embody Phèdre’s overpowering fear, guilt and paranoia, as do the powerful wide-eyed gazes at the audience. Particularly impressive was the scene of Phèdre’s death at the end of the play—despite having spent the past three hours watching the drama unravel, I was on the edge of my seat, transfixed on Phèdre as she took her last breaths. Oenone’s part in the tragedy is portrayed with skill and subtlety by Hannah Rose Kessler, who seems particularly influential over Phèdre when coaxing her into following her wicked scheme, although her version of the character is less conniving than my initial reading of the text suggested.
The role of Hippolytus is skilfully played by Arthur Wotton, conjuring up both his disgust at his step-mother and love for Aricia, whose determination as the sole survivor of the family feud is beautifully captured by Julie Dequaire.
Other impressive performances include that of Jon Berry, who masterfully took on the role of Théramène, both as a friend to Hippolytus and the bearer of the news of his death. His lengthy monologue, which describes the fatal encounter with the sea monster, is delivered with considerable power, but at the same time with a quiet sense of grief. Similarly, Theseus, played by Thomas Rawlinson, commands the stage as a powerful presence, showing particular anger when passionately invoking Neptune to harm his son.
All in all, I was fascinated to watch this interpretation of Racine’s masterpiece: it was one that I felt softened Phèdre’s literary image as the self-hating figure of shame, instead portraying her as the victim of the gods who control her. On a beautiful evening, in a perfect setting, this play captured me from beginning to end, providing a slightly new take on the character who has one of the most famous epithets in all of French literature: ‘la fille de Minos et Pasiphaé’.