Catherine Walker in Rough Magic's Phaedra, by Hilary Fannin and Ellen Cranitch. Photo: Pat Redmond

Catherine Walker in Rough Magic's Phaedra, by Hilary Fannin and Ellen Cranitch. Photo: Pat Redmond

Music is a powerful theatrical tool, and Rough Magic’s radical reinterpretation of the Greek mythical story of Phaedra exploits its possibilities in a new version of Racine’s 17th century adaptation of the Greek original by writer Hilary Fannin and composer Ellen Cranitch. Cranitch’s sea-salt score provides an emotional and physical centre to Lynne Parker’s ambitious production. Traditional Irish instruments blend with shanty rhythms to suggest the island isolation of the setting; the alternate gentleness and violence of the shore-lapping waves, whose fickle moods echo the psychology of the world which Fannin evokes so brilliantly in her irreverent dialogue, while gravelly punkish inflections bring a hard edge to the arias of the opera-inflected score, which borrows from Rameau’s 18th century musical setting of Racine’s play. It is an original and emotionally affecting approach.

John Comiskey’s set places the five-piece orchestra at the centre of the stage, creating a shallow pit just behind the central performance space that suggests the deep, visceral connection between words and music. Indeed, it is when these worlds are yoked together in form that the collaboration is most commanding. During a “celebration” scene following Theseus’ sudden return, the actors are compelled to chant their lines or echo the hypnotic refrains of a three-piece chorus, as though possessed by the music.

Greek drama comes with its own conventions, and, working from a modern version of the Phaedra myth, Parker is free to dispense with many of the problematic stylistic elements. However, she also reabsorbs the more traditional function of the chorus into her production in the shape of the three vocal performers, who provide commentary on the action in musical motifs that echo the main dramas of preceding scenes. They also serve an important dramatic function, stalking the central characters like sea-sirens or the Furies, supernatural creatures whose appearance in Greek myth foreshadows madness and/or death. Feather-clad and silver-faced, Bláithín Sheerin’s costuming for these three choral creatures is inspired. They are unearthly beings burrowed deep in the living world.

The living world, as reimagined by Fannin, is a cynical, corrupt place and there are familiar resonances with modern Ireland: its value of wealth above integrity; the hyper-sexualisation of women. Phaedra has married for money and influence, not love, while her husband, Theseus, is a Celtic Tiger charlatan: over-sexed, adulterous, and violent. His son Hippolytus, who Phaedra falls in lust with, is treated with scorn for his rejection of these materialistic values. However, the parallels with contemporary culture are not overly laboured, and the most affecting element of the script is in the caustic curses that Fannin draws upon the characters. The effect is so shocking as to be funny, but there is real anger at the status of women in this amoral world.

Catherine Walker brings a seductively frail edge to Phaedra, although Fannin makes the maid Enone (Michèle Forbes) rather than Phaedra the central actor in the tragedy. Forbes's malevolent aunt-figure is outshone by the other main actor in events, Sarah Greene’s Ismene, whose Cork-inspired, cocaine-snorting characterisation of the servant girl suggests the naturalised decay at the heart of this world. Greene is a brilliant comic actress and she ensures that the dark, cutting humour of Fannin’s script is never lost amidst the inevitable movements towards tragedy. But the male characters are as ineffectual as Phaedra. Stephen Brennan’s Theseus growls like a bruised bear, slighted by Phaedra’s apparent betrayal. There is a moment where he brings a wine bottle down heavily upon the long steel table that forms the centrepiece of the production’s second half. It is a perfectly measured moment of danger, and yet he is powerless to change events. Meanwhile, Allen Leech’s Hippolytus is more stoic than sensual, making the eventual tragic revelation less affecting than it might otherwise be.

The power of the production is also undercut by its sudden end. Where you expect Cranitch’s powerful score to crescendo, it dies out instead, as if a night’s wave-tossed storm is suddenly stilled to a gently lapping shore. Theoretically, this decision to end the play in quietude makes sense, reinforcing the essential passivity that marks out Phaedra as victim rather than harridan. However, it denies the audience the sense of emotional catharsis that the score always threatens to bring on.

This is undoubtedly a stirring production, and director Lynne Parker bravely conducts the diverse elements with impressive command. And yet we are left wanting some emotional release, which perhaps only music can bring.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Phaedra by Hilary Fannin and Ellen Cranitch

3 - 10 October, 2010

Produced by Rough Magic Theatre Company
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Lynne Parker

Musical Director: Ellen Cranitch

Set and Lighting Design John Comiskey

With: Stephen Brennan, Michèle Forbes, Sarah Greene, Darragh Kelly, Allen Leech, Gemma Reeves and Catherine Walker.

Music Ensemble: Cormac de Barra, Aingeala de Burca, Fionnuala Gill, Robbie Harris, Rory Musgrave, Paudie O’Connor and Cathy White.