Krzysztof Warlikowski is one of the representatives of the European ‘regie theatre’, a theatre driven and dominated artistically by directors, known for their distinct, in-your-face theatre aesthetic that often bewilders and sometimes angers. Nothing is sacred for these directors and they frequently deface the classics by rewriting them with the help of dramaturges and by using additional texts. Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) at the Barbican is no exception to this rule.
Critics used to polite ‘bourgeois’ inoffensive theatre have often problem deciphering the aesthetics of such theatre makers as Warlikowski, who bring together in their adaptations several European theatrical cultures, in an avant-garde, uncompromising or confrontational way, without taking a clear moral stand and leaving all the ‘thinking-through-the-performance’ to the audience. London spectators might have found his latest work even more challenging as it was in French which required reading surtitles.
Polish director’s Phaedra(s) is built from three interconnected stories about the Greek princess and her tragic life as told by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad (Une chienne), British dramatist Sarah Kane (Phaedra’s Love) and South African novelist J M Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello), with a touch of Racine and Euripides. The star of the show, Isabelle Huppert as a multi-Phaedra, for three and a half hours is consumed by an illicit but overpowering passion for her stepson Hippolytus, which she has kept as a dark secret.
Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s grand and spacious but also clean, uncluttered stage design, consisting of the back cream-coloured wall with a door, mirror wall (stage left) and a sliding Perspex box (stage-right), with just a bed (centre-stage), a sink, a shower and a sofa allow actors maximum exposure on stage, which is further strengthened by real time projections of them on the back wall.
Warlikowski’s contribution to Phaedra’s story, retold and rewritten dozens of times in literature, art and music, is an important one. His focus is entirely on female desire giving Phaedra even the right to narrate her story and letting her occupy the stage virtually throughout the whole performance. Polish director always allows female characters to dominate his stagings and habitually gives them additional text(s) to empower them and make their voices stronger. At the same time his male characters are often weak, violent or simply monsters taking advantage of women in the cruellest ways.
In the first segment of Warlikowski’s adaptation Mouawad’s text sheds the light on Phaedra’s and her family’s fate after Theseus’s victory over Minotaur, Phaedra’s half-brother. We learn that vengeful Theseus ordered the killing of her family and the people of Crete including little children. Her story is thus a story of survival, marked by bloodshed and loss. Amidst the ruins of her life she falls in love with her step-son, Hippolytus. Warlikowski chooses to portray her shameless desire through an on-stage personification: a scantily dressed dancer moves in increasingly erotic ways until she is thoroughly consumed by her ecstatic movements, unable to stop, practically causing her pain.
It is hard to follow Mouawad’s text which Huppert shouts out while committing some mad acts including a disembowelling of the dog. But I do not think we are supposed to understand her fully and instead it is the kinaesthetic power of Huppert’s performance and the sound of some words that resonate particularly strong, Earth – woman- cunt – rape. This first Phaedra is atavistic, mystical, goddess-like and profoundly tragic. When blood appears between her legs she is ready to tell about the atrocities inflicted by her now husband on the people of Crete.
The second Phaedra is Kane’s abandoned wife who out of love tries to save her troubled step-son. Hippolytus, fat and despondent lives a life of debauchery in his opulent room. This segment of the staging is less about atavistic desires and more about erring ways of love. Phaedra has a semi-comical conversation with a therapist about her stepson’s mental state: but while she expresses a genuine concern for his welfare the male psychiatrist continues to ask her about her own sex life and desires. She also talks to her daughter, Strophe to whom she finally admits that she is in love with Hippolytus. Kane’s story ends with no sexual consummation (not counting an attempted fallatio Phaedra performs on Hippolytus) while Phaedra’s suicide helps Hippolytus to awake from his stupor and feel something again.
The last Phaedra is really Elizabeth Costello, from J M Coetzee’s novel, who is interviewed on stage by a journalist. The conversation is highly philosophical and intellectual, love and desire are theorised and analysed by a precocious female character who easily dominates her interlocutor and drives the direction of the interview. She is predominantly interested in the relationship between gods and men, a subject that Warlikowski focuses on in most of his work. Costello-Phaedra concludes that gods are not interested in us and it is us who desire contact with them.
Warlikowski tells radical feminist stories not shrinking from portraying ugly, dirty passions and the physicality of love and desire. It is for the audience to decide if they feel unnerved, ashamed or angered. In Phaedra(s) all women own their sexuality, follow their desires and pay the price for doing this. Above all, Warlikowski gives his actresses and the characters they play a strong voice, and Isabelle Huppert as Phaedra has managed to construct the most fascinating portrayal of a woman in love you will ever see in the theatre.