Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Richard Watson is skeptical of a performance of Phaedra's Love
by Sarah Kane
Hull University Drama Department
Gulbenkian Theatre Studio, Hull, 24th October
Dress on the 22nd
Phaedra's Love, at the Gulbenkian this week, is a surprisingly tame performance of one of troubled writer Sarah Kane's lesser-known plays.
As a playwright, Sarah Kane is distinguished by her own mental health problems, graphic on-stage displays of sex and violence, and her early suicide after writing just five bitter, caustic plays. What makes her interesting is her divisive effect on audiences; generally, people either love the daring, honest and gritty depiction of Kane's world, or hate being subjected to gratuitous sex, violence and harrowing mental pain. A good production of a Kane play should have this effect on an audience, and her work is usually at least good for setting up a debate on the value of shock factor in theatre and if there can ever be too much sex and/or violence on a stage.
Unfortunately, Hull University's extra-curricular Phaedra's Love – with an admittedly short rehearsal period – fails to do this. It lacks the visceral edge that is really needed for Kane's work, and the audience at Wednesday's Dress Rehearsal were left neither loving nor hating it. The tension and genuine feeling are both missing from this piece, and only very rarely does the pain shine through. A feeling of pain, be it mental or physical, is vital for a Kane play, and maybe this cast simply hasn't had time to find it – whatever the reason, its presence is sorely missed here.
Phaedra's Love is Kane's modern version of the Greek legend of Hippolytus, virtuous bastard son of Theseus, and his step-mother, Phaedra. The French writer Racine also updated the story for the 1670s, and Kane has given us a modern Hippolytus – a repulsively feckless prince, spoilt from birth. He spends his life waiting for something to happen, though it takes him a long time to realise when something is finally happening. As in the original Greek story, Phaedra's love of the title is for her step-son, Hippolytus, who has no interest in her whatsoever. As in the Greek story, Phaedra's reaction to this is what Hippolytus into trouble with his father, Theseus. The rest of the cast is competent in filling the roles of doctor, daughter, priest and later townsfolk, but there is never enough depth of feeling from anybody to really live up to a Kane script.
While this production is happy enough to indulge in the various acts of oral sex and masturbation, it skimps on the violence. There is an admirable bravery – surely to be applauded by fans of Kane – in the blow job delivered at the front of centre stage, but something distinctly lacking in the fight and rape in the penultimate scene. These events – played at the same time – are rushed and lack all that should make them shocking, dangerous and painful. Without shock and pain, Kane is nothing.