views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Hippolytus
The Hope Theatre
29th May 2015

★★★☆☆

Tamsin Shasha as Phaedra

Photography © Mandy Gasson

Never mind life imitating art, often art imitates life. The best theatre makers take inspiration from things that have actually happened to them, making me somewhat regret not turning up to more seminars at Elvet Riverside. Director Justin Murray and Catharsis Theatre have taken Euripides' classic Hippolytus and stuck it in the middle of a lecture hall - suddenly university seems more interesting. A PhD-holding classicist (Ben Scheck) is here to tell us about Greek tragedy, but actually, examples of this seem to be unfolding all around him and swiftly making him the central focus. He no longer needs to explain, we can see for ourselves.

There's more than one version of Hippolytus, but in Euripides' take, when the young prince refuses to worship Aphrodite (Isobel Wolff), she sets in a motion a chain of events which leads to his destruction. First, Aphrodite makes Hippolytus's stepmom Pheadra (Tamsin Shasha) lust after him. Rejected, shamed and manipulated further by Aphrodite posing as her nurse, Pheadra kills herself, leaving a note which falsely accuses Hippolytus of rape. Understandably upset, Phaedra's husband and Hippolytus's father Theseus (Julian Hutton) exiles him from his kingdom and - just to top it off - asks his own dad, who only happens to be Poseidon, god of the sea, to make sure Hippolytus doesn't survive. Never mind a woman scorned, if you anger the goddess of love, she'll really do a number on you.

Interweaving the lecturer's own story with a myth is an intelligent plot device. However, the story of Hippolytus isn't a completely natural fit with the other arc: Hippolytus is largely innocent and the lecturer's actions are more questionable. Greek mythology is full of death, meddling gods and forbidden desires - there are so many tales to choose from and whilst the concept of merging past and present works very well, perhaps Murray could have chosen better. Maybe one of the stories of Hippolytus's father might have made more sense - after all, when Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, he used her, dumped her on a beach and later married her sister. You couldn't exactly describe him as ethically sound.

Scheck has a great stage presence, making him the perfect speaker and stand-in for the noble prince. As his character becomes more and more bewildered and broken, we are increasingly intrigued as to where the crossover between his life and his field of study lies. Wolff too is a good choice for Aphrodite, her behaviour cold and driven by jealousy and petty hate - maybe not an image of love to make you feel a nice warm rosy glow inside, but keeping very much in line with the deity described in tales passed down by the Ancient Greeks. Where the overall delivery does falter slightly is in Hutton's reaction to his wife's suicide and his son's apparent hand in that. Hutton does fury well in later scenes, but there isn't any raw emotion in this initial bombshell. We expect more basic grief and this detracts from a pivotal moment.

The physical theatre and staging is excellent, with Murray cleverly involving the audience in Phaedra's downfall and creating a royal chariot out of nothing more than a chair and ribbon. The chorus (Lizzie Buckingham, Eleanor Russo and Briony Wyatt) constantly share and switch parts, which naturally draws the eye around the room and creates a very elegant movement. There really is a lot to commend about the production and while some elements which could be sharper, it's a fascinating and worthwhile watch. Whether or not you're a fan of myth and legend, prior knowledge is neither necessary nor detrimental, this is a smart adaptation which will keep your attention throughout. Happy to horrid in only 60 minutes, Hippolytus is a clever twist on a classic.

Hippolytus opened on 27th May and runs until 30th May 2015 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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