Isabelle Huppert, as Phaedra, in wild blonde wig, killer heels and leather mini-skirt, sprawls centre-stage on a bed with Hippolytus (Gaël Kamilindi), as a huge video projection of the pair is presented on the wall behind. It’s an image that encapsulates much of what’s striking and what’s silly about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), qualities which, in Warlikowski’s work, can be pretty close.
Having premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe last month, Phaedra(s) now arrives at the Barbican, as part of the 2016 London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). While this year’s Festival offers many diverse highlights, Warlikowski’s production is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated. It’s also one of the most starry (for European cinephiles, at least), boasting not only the iconic Huppert among its cast, but also Alex Descas (most familiar to international audiences for his work in Claire Denis’s films) and Agata Buzek and Andrzej Chyra, reunited from Jerzy Skolimowski’s sensational city symphony, 11 Minutes, last year.
Warlikowski and Huppert previously collaborated on the Tennessee Williams adaptation A Streetcar in 2010 and their re-teaming for Phaedra(s) looks likely to receive an equally mixed response. Reuniting, too, with his usual coterie of collaborators — including designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak and composer Paweł Mykietyn — Warlikowski continues to draw on the lingua franca of progressive, postmodernist European theatre for this outing. The boldly hybridised approach of this Polish auteur, who is the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr, has become so patented as to almost be clichéd, with his use of video, dance, multiple intertexts, and headline-grabbing provocations. “Three hours of vomit, fellatio and menstruation” warned, or promised, a screaming Spectator article on Phaedra(s) — though, in fact, those elements take up approximately three minutes of the production’s running time.
As the pluralised title none-too-subtly suggests, Warlikowski’s production is all about investigating the possibility of “many Phaedras”, and of exploring the cultural legacy of the myth. The wide-ranging, international ethos of his approach is evident in the diverse texts he’s based the production around, utilising Sarah Kane’s 1996 Phaedra’s Love and extracts from J. M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel-essay Elizabeth Costello, alongside a new text, adapted (very) freely from Euripides and Seneca, by Wajdi Mouawad. In addition, there’s a dash of Racine, and clips from Psycho, Theorem and Frances are incorporated.
The production begins with Mouawad’s material, presenting what Huppert has described as “a geopolitical Phaedra”, an immigrant “torn from her roots”, a princess from a family destroyed by Theseus. A punky Huppert enters initially as Aphrodite, before turning into Phaedra, instrument of the goddess’s wrath. A dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero) twirls and gyrates as a singer (Norah Krief) performs “The Ruins” in Arabic to Grégoire Léauté’s ambient electric guitar accompaniment.
The second section presents Kane’s play in its entirety, much of it unfolding in a boxy enclosure, where a second, older Hippolytus (Chyra), mopes and masturbates before facing off with Huppert’s more demurely-dressed incarnation of Phaedra, his step-sister Strophe (Buzek) and later, with a Priest (Descas). Finally, the Coetzee material takes the form of a parody (or is it?) of academic discourse, as Huppert’s trouser-suited and bespectacled Elizabeth Costello gives her views on Eros and the “man-and-god business” to Chyra’s lecturer character.
Are these divergent strands illuminating? Well, in part. Although the overall trajectory of the production — from a primal, animalistic depiction of desire to a talky, analytical account — is not very satisfying, Phaedra(s) is a powerful sensory experience at its best. The opening section is especially haunting, with Huppert giving a striking performance that pulls us deeply into the character’s tormented head-space.
On film, Huppert’s performances have mostly (though not exclusively) tended toward minimalism. Her fill-in-the-blanks impassivity has often been viewed as the quintessence of screen acting, though not by Pauline Kael who memorably dubbed her a “little French mouse”. Huppert’s face, Kael argued, is “not enigmatic, just closed …She … gives you a little glimmer of something that is so small and wan no camera yet invented could turn it into an emotion” (Kael, Taking It All In, 102)).
There’s nothing mousy about Huppert’s work in Phaedra(s), though. From banshee wails, to desperate crawls across Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s sterile set, Huppert’s performance in the opening section is notable for its physical and vocal abandon. She’s great in the Kane material, too (getting a surprising amount of comedy out of her recitation of the stage directions), and is well-matched by distinguished work from Chyra and Buzek.
Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is not a great piece of work, however, and stretched out across both sides of the interval, it becomes tedious here, culminating in an extended dance interlude for Torres Guerrero that feels like it will never end. The Coetzee material is also arch and annoying, and the indulgent clips from Frances and Theorem, ostensibly used to give depth to the theme of mortals/gods interaction, are stubbornly un-illuminating. (To quote Kael again: “It takes intellectuals to be this dumb.”)
It’s a definite relief when Huppert and Chyra launch into some lines of Racine in this final section; the dialogue is so strong, and the actors’ performances so beautifully controlled, that this simply-staged moment outclasses almost everything that’s gone before it. As such, it’s hard not to wish that Warlikowski had ditched the other texts and self-conscious effects and just based the whole evening on Racine’s work.
Still, in its combination of the exciting and the enervating, the admirable and the absurd, Warlikowski’s production remains a memorable experience, and its international approach justified an unexpected coda. At the (rapturous) curtain call, Huppert stopped the applause to weigh in on the impending EU referendum, shouting a heartfelt “All Europe loves you! Stay with us!” at the audience. Coming from an actress known for keeping a tactful silence on political matters, the remark was as surprising as it was touching. It was also appropriate in another way: much like the EU, Phaedra(s) itself stands as a testament to the value of deeply flawed yet nonetheless worthwhile endeavours.
Phaedra(s) is booking at the Barbican until 18 June.