Simon Stone’s (Yerma, Netflix’s The Dig) revival completely reimagines the Greek tragedy with a stellar cast including Tony and Olivier Award winner and two-time Academy Award nominee Janet McTeer (Ozark, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, A Doll’s House), Assaad Bouab (Call My Agent), and John Macmillan (The People We Hate at the Wedding, Silk, Chewing Gum, Hang Ups).
Completing the cast are Rhys Bailey, Archie Barnes, Paul Chahidi, Mackenzie Davis, Nicholas Gauci, Mohsen Ghaffari, Akiya Henry, Johanne Murdock, Nadia Nadif, Emmanuel Olusanya, Sirine Saba and Dot Williams.
In the play, after dedicating years to her political pursuits, a determined politician shifts her focus to her personal life. But a blast from the past stirs up emotions and challenges the beliefs that have driven her success. As hidden desires and feelings of solitude rise to the surface, her choices put everything she has worked for at risk.
Simon Stone directs.
Phaedra runs until 8 April 2023 in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in London.
Check out reviews below from all of the main critics including Susanna Clapp in The Observer, Dominic Maxwell in The Times and Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. To say the critics varied in their opinions is an understatement!
"Succession meets Peep Show in stunningly sharp update"
"It’s Phaedra, kind of, but Simon Stone’s rivetingly black-comical psychodrama is also very much its own beast. In fact, giving it the same name as the plays by Euripides, Seneca and Racine that inspired it might scare off those averse to classical tragedy, when what we’re actually getting is closer to Succession."
"... Phaedra — here called Helen, and played so well by Janet McTeer that it almost never occurs to you that she is acting, however hubristic, lustful, drunken or defeated she gets..."
"However you define this remarkable evening, Stone, the Australian writer-director whose productions include the incendiary version of Lorca’s Yerma that starred Billie Piper, is out to make the old new."
"Does he also create the space for Helen to take on a tragic dimension? No: McTeer makes her proud, needy, fierce, flirty, imperious, dismissive, rash, resourceful, regretful, plausible. Yet there is a scene missing that might enhance our sense of how deep her feelings go. Her ketchup-heavy final moments feel wilful rather than inevitable."
"Simon Stone’s reimagining flitters from tragedy to comedy"
"Janet McTeer plays a politician who falls for her dead lover’s son, but even her strong performance cannot save a tonally unsure play"
"Simon Stone’s reimaginging, which calls itself “a new play after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”, initially seems unrecognisable... But the heart is there: Helen’s illicit passion both revives her and leads to her doom."
"This is potentially fruitful terrain but the play’s tone repeatedly switches from comedy to serious drama, which brings confusion over what it is trying to say or do. It comes laden with plot turns, not all convincing, which get in the way of any psychological depth. Helen is ultimately rendered a caricature, spoilt and self-obsessed. McTeer’s performance is strong all the same."
"Janet McTeer leads a fine cast in Simon Stone’s must-see show"
"A high-spec, richly-textured chamber extravaganza"
"How gobsmackingly audacious, to turn the Greek myth of a woman in love with her stepson into a satire on smug London elites, while retaining its transgressive, tragic power. That’s what Australian director Simon Stone has done in this high-spec, richly-textured chamber extravaganza at the National Theatre."
"He’s also restored the magnificent Janet McTeer to the London stage after too many years away. Here she leads a fine ensemble that includes France’s Assaad Bouab and Canadian screen star Mackenzie Davis."
"They, and just about everyone else in the cast, give thrilling performances as utterly awful, self-absorbed people. Occasionally the show teeters on the brink of absurdity. Still, I’d call it a must-see."
"Politics, privilege and lust collide in a gut-punching and horribly funny reworking of classical myth"
"Here, Phaedra – renamed Helen (an allusion to the Trojan War) and given a staggering portrayal by Janet McTeer – is a senior shadow politician."
"The play is often horribly funny, Stone’s dialogue pulverisingly hectic and McTeer’s Helen, initially silkier than her chic satin shirt, turns into a psychosexual pugilist who unashamedly fights very dirty. But while it’s both refreshing and provocative to see a drama centred on a woman in late middle-age who is frankly sexual and refuses to remain either decorous or polite, the squabbling of two females over a man who ultimately rejects them both is a weary anticlimax."
"Janet McTeer is riveting in a wry, stylish take on sexual obsession"
"Six years after ‘Yerma’, director Simon Stone puts another old story into a giant glass box with thrilling and maddening results"
"Six years after he put Billie Piper in a giant glass box for his smash hit take on Yerma, Simon Stone is back with another uncompromising, thrilling story of a tormented woman, lifted from the classics. This time round it’s formidable actor Janet McTeer who’s behind the glass, taking chunks out of her unfortunate tank-mates with the appetite of a ravening piranha."
"Stone’s dialogue is sparky, hilarious and lightning-quick, its strands interlocking and tangling together like electric cables."
"Janet McTeer does her best in Simon Stone’s indulgent melodrama rewrite of the Phaedra myth"
"... even if you do feel sympathy in theory, we’re basically never shown any scenes of Helen not being awful. There’s no bitter irony to her downfall, and her affair with Sofiane really never comes across as anything other than an outrageous act of indulgence, a titanic expression of entitlement."
"At points her total disregard for anyone else’s feeling is so absurd that it becomes laugh-out-loud funny. That’s surely intentional, but the tone is so perplexingly balanced that I wondered if Stone had actually written an overt comedy."
"... ‘Phaedra’ is neither functional as a comedy nor a tragedy, but rather a sloppy melodrama with funny bits in it. Ultimately having us laugh at Helen does not help the play’s abrupt attempt to get serious at the end."
"Janet McTeer’s fatally attracted politician crowns a night of visionary elan"
"Aided by a first-rate cast, director Simon Stone has rewired the millennia-old tragedy into a masterfully staged tale for the 21st century"
" The fact that laughter is heard in quantities that wouldn’t disgrace a hit sitcom (especially in a deranged restaurant showdown) is one intriguing upset to tragic templates. Stone grasps that woe can erupt in risibly petty-minded, politically smug, privileged milieux, testing sympathies."
"An elegant McTeer is superb at the micro-indications of a head turned in hormonal directions – stealing glances, flirtily laughing and restlessly rubbing her thighs."
"This is Phaedra in a blistering new version of Seneca’s tragedy by writer and director Simon Stone."
"This world of surfaces splinters as raw, animal emotions surge to the fore. Stone and his excellent cast splice tragedy with pitch-black comedy, nowhere more so than in an excruciating showdown in a stylish restaurant, where the family tear lumps out of each other, to the mortification of other diners and the staff."
"It’s led from the front by McTeer’s sensational Helen, who drags us with her through the delirium of desire and the viciousness of jealousy to a desolate ending"
"What is missing, however, is a sense of struggle within Helen that could make her more of a nuanced and tragic figure. Her ending feels abrupt, and the overloaded final scene has too much work to do to be moving and veers close to melodrama. But this is still a riveting piece, blazingly acted."
"A Shadow Cabinet minister ruined by lust? It's a tragedy!"
"Janet McTeer is now perhaps best known for her role in the Netflix crime drama Ozark; but her return to the London stage after 14 years has been worth the wait. The occasion is Simon Stone's ultra-modern reworking of Phaedra, the ancient Greek tragedy of tawdry lust and grubby ruin."
"Visually, Aussie writer-director Stone's production is stunning, thanks to Chloe Lamford's glass-box set. She presents these citizens of nowhere as sociological specimens imprisoned in a glib and gilded way of life."
"The dialogue comes thick, fast — and extra strong; mostly in English but with some scenes rendered in French, Arabic and Farsi (with subtitle translation). Yet this is a three-hour night out packed with toe-curling incident and represents formidable value for money."
"Janet McTeer is mighty in Simon Stone’s electric remaking of myth"
"Simon Stone’s Phaedra is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It is one way forward for the theatre. Amazing velocity of delivery; action reaching into all corners of the stage; an arc that goes, in under three hours, from hilarity to horror – inevitably."
"You can find in this a story of post-menopausal love and an awakening for a self-consciously liberal family, yet it feels immediate, not thematic. The opening scene alone is a revelation..."
"Paul Chahidi, who time and again has proved a great comic actor, now has a chance to show his implacable intelligence twisting into sardonic pain. McTeer is mighty. Distraught, out of control, skittish, yet never losing her potential to command, slightly mysterious even when apparently most open. She has been away from the English stage too long."
"An amphetamine-fuelled sex farce that turns into tragedy"
"The abrupt descent into emotional darkness is convincing largely due to the astonishingly confident performances."
"McTeer is magnificent as the hormonal cougar harbouring a necrotic guilt and she is surrounded by a superb ensemble including Archie Barnes as the smartmouthed son Declan, Akiya Henry as Helen’s political ally Omalara and John Macmillan as Isolde’s cuckolded husband Eric."
"My one gripe is that the production is housed within a giant Perspex box in which the actors appear like specimens in a petri dish. This alienating device is now a design cliché that should be eliminated for good."
"Frenetic and ridiculous"
"Janet McTeer is never less than commanding in Simon Stone’s Greek myth retelling, but this divisive play made me long for peace, quiet and some Nurofen"
"McTeer is never less than commanding, but it is difficult to credit that a proud public figure like Helen would go so rapidly and visibly to pieces."
"Greek tragedy is famous for being short and sharp, an undiluted dose of the strongest spirits. Stone, by contrast, allows his focus to waver constantly and by the time we get to a lengthy digression into the white foster family of Helen’s black colleague Omolara (Akiya Henry), our spirits are flagging."
"Chloe Lamford’s glass cube rotates – slowly, as the blackouts are many and lengthy – to reveal a startling number of fresh sets, as domestic naturalism melts away into something wild and elemental. I wish I had liked Phaedra more, but I found it largely ridiculous."