Phaedra(s) (or Phèdre(s)), a nigh four hour piece of avant garde theatre in French with English surtitles, starring Isabelle Huppert, is the centre-piece of the Barbican’s LIFT festival and coincides with a Huppert retrospective. Originally staged at the Odeon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Phaedra(s) runs June 10–18.
Few productions can justify a nigh four-hour runtime. Even Hamlet, Shakespeare’s masterpiece, is almost always trimmed to a more manageable length. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) certainly doesn’t justify its length, despite a riveting central performance from the shapeshifting Isabelle Huppert. Playing out three different riffs on the Ancient Greek Phaedra myth — by Wajdi Mouawad, Sarah Kane, and J.M. Coetzee, respectively — Phaedra(s) plays with experimental theatre choices that verge on engaging. But we’re left with few tangible results that shed no light on the story, its relevance, or why the hell we should stay awake for four hours.
[quote type=center]It drags. It frustrates. It’s avant garde theatre in French[/quote]
In Greek Mythology, Phaedra is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë and married to Theseus. But she falls in love with Theseus’ son, Hippolytus, from another woman. The circumstances for this differ in each version of the story, but Phaedra ultimately tells her husband that Hippolytus raped her, causing Theseus to take action. In some versions, Phaedra ends by killing herself.
In the first Phaedra, Huppert appears on stage looking like a movie star with sunglasses and a luxurious black coat, which she opens to reveal extravagant lingerie. It’s the most overtly sexual take of the three, and the most concerned with the body itself: Phaedra begins menstruating, and we see the blood soaking through her underwear. In the second Phaedra, Huppert is prim and proper in a chaste pink sweater and skirt, though the sex she has with her stepson here is the most visceral and desperate. Yet we watch most of this part play out through a glass window, keeping us at a distance. In the last and shortest piece, Huppert’s character, Elizabeth Costello, is a sharp and sassy academic giving an onstage talk in conversation with a man about her writing career. This was the simplest in concept, two actors sitting in black chairs, facing the audience, and the most engaging because it wasn’t bogged down by inchoate ideas.
I suspect Walikowski is interested in our relationship to the stories told about us and our role in telling those stories. All of these Phaedras find Huppert standing downstage left, narrating directly to the audience in annoyingly highfalutin language. She’s controlling her story and yet detached from her own experience: at one point Huppert stands next to herself, lying unconscious in a hospital bed, unmoved as she watches her own unconscious body being raped. In the second Phaedra, Walikowski plays classic film clips on loop that are meant to reflect the action onstage: the shower scene from Psycho looms large, after we saw Phaedra shower on stage earlier in the show.
[quote type=center]That Phaedra(s) is bearable at all is entirely thanks to Isabelle Huppert.[/quote]
Presumably, this interest in mythology and self-mythology is why Walikowski has gathered three different takes on Phaedra together in one show. But this is largely conjecture, for there’s nothing to tie together the three takes on this story. The piece is full of frustrating conceits, like an exotic dancer in a rhinestone bikini whose dancing punctuates each act. The score is repetitive and on-the-nose: the same four chords repeated endlessly, followed by a mounting drumbeat to tell us the tension is growing. It drags. It frustrates. It’s avant garde theatre in French. It’s little more than a vehicle for Huppert’s ability to inhabit each of these three very different Phaedras, transforming in a snap into entirely different people.
Phaedra(s) blurs the line between film and stage acting, but not necessarily to good effect. At moments, it’s not clear whether Huppert is giving us a film performance, a stage performance, or some hybrid of the two. At one point in the first Phaedra, she lies down on a bed, practically still. We can’t see much happening on stage. But Warlikowski projects Huppert’s face onto the back wall of the stage, where we can make out subtle facial expressions, calibrated for the big screen. Her body is doing stage work; her face is doing film work. But the purpose of this filmic element is never clear, and it pulls focus away from why we’re here: Isabelle Huppert, live on stage.
Though the production features strong performances and inventive set design, it’s not enough to keep it from being a bore. I was on the verge of nodding off repeatedly; there were many empty seats after the interval on opening night. Had it been trimmed to a more manageable length, Warlikowski might have been able to find a focus and purpose, allowing his flights of fancy to mature into something worthwhile. That Phaedra(s) is bearable at all is entirely thanks to Isabelle Huppert.