Cherwell’s verdict: “drawn-out drama of trauma and death”

In the strikingly dramatic atmosphere of Merton College chapel, Jean Racine’s Phèdre is to be played out (in translation) next week. The script is highly stylised and comes across as a mixture of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare; a tricky combination pulled off by the majority of the cast with style with only the occasional slip into modern intonation in the more highly-wrung phrases, (a slightly wooden declaration at one point that “such unexpected terrors choke my soul” seemed delightfully comic more than anything).

The director successfully exploits the stark bareness of the chapel as an acting space so that the only props are two wooden chairs and a table: the audience sit either side of the actors creating an intimate atmosphere which works well to balance the overtly formalised acting style. At one point the young lovers Hippolytus (Hugh Johnson) and Aricia (Clara-Laeila Laudette) play out a love scene up in the organ box. This proved extremely effective in bringing to mind a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque balcony scene, although the less flexible members of the audience should be advised to sit as far away as possible to save them from the possibility of neck injuries obtained from craning up at strange angles.

The heroine herself, Phèdre, is played by the beautiful and youthful Bridget Dru, a far cry from our conception of an old and twisted step-mother (although admittedly incestuous love didn’t quite make it into most of our childhood renditions of Cinderella and Snow White). The result is a quasi-maternal relationship between Phèdre and Oenone the ‘nurse’ (Grace Brockway), and an audience that is much more likely to turn away from the brilliantly stubborn and narrow-minded King Theseus (Jonathon Oakman) to sympathise with his inherently traumatised wife.

The only quibble that springs to mind as I watch this play is that, in the depths of a freezing chapel, the tendency for elongated speeches becomes a test of our concentration as well as our circulation. However clearly this is a fault of a speech rather than the casts who deliver the lines well, apart from an occasional lack of the utter articulatedness which is required in the echoing chapel from Theseus. But fear not – I am later informed that there will be heating! Perhaps bring eskimo suits just in case… and brace yourself for some intense but well-acted tragedy.