Phaedra – Erotic abandonment and cool crisp Sydney nights. (Theatre review)

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Tap Gallery

July 17 – 26. You can grab your tickets here.

Images by Sascha Cohen

There is a special thing that happens in theatre, a strange discombobulation where the audience is always confronted by the transgressive pairing of “The Real” and “The Not Real.” If a director and performers decide to take advantage of this, invite the audience into the theatrical wisdom itself, the result is the kind of experience of an expanse that only art can produce. It is the seductions of this “expanse” that propel its refutations – we all like to nail ourselves into “The Real” (particularly in the last two hundred years or so) as a defense against the enormity of the “Not Real” that art makes possible. That, or we cling to the loose term “spirituality” in order to try to pin down this infinite ocean great art opens up inside us. What I’m getting at with all this, is the current production of Phaedra by the Lies, Lies and Propaganda theatre company currently showing at the Tap Gallery, is the perfect manifestation of this very point. Michael Dean and his cast build for the intimate audience that perfect opportunity that all truly great arts provides, to step out of the safety net of what we suppose to be “reality” and broaden into an astounding present that, as is obvious by this floundering opening paragraph, enormously difficult to describe. To hammer home my spurious point, when I left the theatre after seeing Phaedra, I emailed a friend in the United States, and said “It is an indescribable thrill, to know that in all the millions of events happening today, to the billions of people in the world, I was present at one of the greatest things that occurred.” Theatre, by the nature of its immediacy, is always teetering on the precipice of the experience I am having a lot of trouble describing, but truly great theatre tips you over into that place you long to visit, that isn’t easily available even in your dreams.

Michael Dean’s production of Phaedra is not just flawlessly cast and not just exquisitely designed – it throbs with a life that all the cast tap into in equal measure. Dean has been able to evoke a passion for the work in his cast that goes beyond “enthusiasm for the text”. One has the genuine feeling of the cast being lost inside the performance, a true falling away of any selfhood that retains that connection with the real I mentioned in the first paragraph. When Aphrodite forces her horrific damnation on Hippolytus, her spirit infuses everything with the erotic, from the decapitated animal spilling its blood on the dining table a-la Hermann Nitsch through to the gender-bending body pulse of the Greek chorus whose effortless, united throb fills the room with overwhelming fear of everything inside us. Michael Dean makes no attempt to contemporise the themes – Hippolytus is punished for refusing Aphrodite’s imposition of desire – surely a trait every girl looks for in a stable male. But, as Freud would tell us, we sublimate at our peril, and all Hippolytus’ posturing and attempts to deflect his desire onto the object of his desiring (Richard Hilliar’s speech on the vileness of the erotic female is something that will take me a long time to get over – it still wakes me up at 3am a week later) come back to slaughter his good intentions. However, even beyond the burden of interpretation, Dean transports Phaedra away from everything that has gone before it by including everything that has gone before it, in an unholy mashup deconstructed bliss that ends up being, what all theatre ultimately is, an unapologetic worship of the glorious present. Greek text combines seamlessly with nineteenth century Vienna,  late twentieth century post punk anti-pop (the music of Phaedra is nothing short of inspired) and a deliciously unapologetic grasp at French deconstruction to arrive at the axis upon which all things precariously teeter, Sydney in July, 2014.


It seems trite to wander through the names; Danielle Baynes embodies the tragic, deceitful distressingly beautiful Phaedra, Melissa Brownlow is a slippery slip of a nurse, creeping her way around psychic edges, Richard Hilliar is a bewitching Hippolytus easily embodying the object of desire, and the grand entrance of Katrina Rautenberg, shockingly female, as King Theseus, playing the masculine monarch with no pretense at femininity, and more importantly, none of the empty gestured affectations of masculinity. These hapless four are boxed, caged, surrounded and bookended by the best Greek chorus I’ve ever seen with Sinead Curry. Nathaniel Scotcher, Cheyne Fynn and Jennifer White precise and fellated in all their mocking tributes. However, as successful and engorged as this cast is, the brilliance of Catherine Steels design (she makes everything look like a Claire Denis film), Christopher Page’s lighting and above all Rachael Weiner’s movement which gives eroticism a new kind of ever-ready battery – take that as you will – is easily one of the many reasons to see Phaedra.

Behind the oscillating enormity of the production itself, sit DJ’s Monisha Ponnaiya and Jonathan Ussia injecting the performance with an 80’s vibe – think a dejected Aphrodite departing ceremoniously to Talking Heads We’re on the road to Nowhere and you get a bit of an idea of the vibrancy the music injects into Phaedra. Volume is used to great effect, rising and falling emotionally, while the tunes themselves are grounded points of reference, rather than accompaniments to the “action” designed to ground emotion. It’s a fantastic effect, the music acting almost like its own character within the context of the production.

Phaedra is easily one of the best productions of 2014, and the cry from the critics gallery is more Phaedras please! More!

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