A tragic tale of forbidden lust, betrayal and revenge, Bell Shakespeare brings to life the rarely told French classic, Phèdre, starring acclaimed actress Catherine McClements.
Written by Jean Racine, this most famous of French tragedies continues Bell Shakespeare’s foray into French classical theatre, with Co-Artistic Director Peter Evans directing Ted Hughes’ passionately wrought translation of love, betrayal, humiliation, despair and death.
“The story of Phèdre is a classic love triangle. It’s secrets and lies, forbidden love and the destruction of innocence,” says Director Evans. “But it’s also about fathers and sons, and what it’s like to be the son of such a famous and infamous father.”
Evans is delighted to finally have the opportunity to cast Catherine McClements in a role for which, he says, she is perfectly suited. “I wanted an actor that was brave. She is one of this country’s most incisive and powerful actors. Casting Catherine was the first idea I had when I thought about doing this play,” says Evans. “It’s right for her – it’s raw, and exposed.”
McClements shares Evans' delight and says that the role is one that she knew of and when Peter Evan’s said his company were daring to produce it she leapt out of her seat. "This play is a work of art that is rarely performed here," she says. "I’m so glad to get a crack at it and am intrigued to discover the audience response."
Evans first saw McClements perform when he was a student at NIDA, while working as assistant director to Neil Armfield on Company B’s 1995 production of The Blind Giant is Dancing, though many people know her best from her TV performances in Water Rats, Rush and The Secret Life of Us.
Phèdre was first performed in 1677 and is a dramatic tragedy in 5 acts although all the action takes place in one day. It is based on Euripides tale Hippolytus, which is more than 2000 years old. So, Phèdre is married to the notorious and absent King Theseus. When rumours of his death reach her, she confesses her forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolytus. Rejected by him and faced with the shock return of her husband, the devastated Phèdre stands-by while her stepson is accused of her rape. This mythic tale is alive with erotic obsession, wild accusations, chilling curses and violent deaths. It cannot end well, and, like any good tragedy, it doesn’t.
Racine is considered one of the three great playwrights of 17th century France. His work is marked by great psychological insight, the prevailing passion of his characters, and the nakedness of both the plot and stage.
"The script is simple and breathtaking poetry," says McClements. "As actors we need to expose out characters through this language. It’s a sensitive, detailed and, for me, embarrassingly revealing path. Look, it’s a fairly humiliating place to explore. You do have to jump in without a life jacket. The challenge is to stop looking for the escape."
MCClemnts will be performing alongside Marco Chiappi, Julie Forsyth, Bert Labonte, Olivia Monicciolo, Caroline Lee, Edmund Lembke-Hogan (of Bell Shakespeare’s 2012 Players) and newcomer Abby Earl, who stars in Channel 7’s new TV series, A Place Called Home.
Evans’ decision to produce Phèdre is part of Bell Shakespeare’s continued interest in expanding the Company’s repertoire. “To the Europeans, the story of Phèdre is like our Hamlet,” says Evans, “but I feel confident most of our audience won’t know this story, and that’s exciting.”
For McClements it is a stand alone tour de force. "In a way this play, unlike Shakespeare, is a chamber piece. It whispers its intensity, it’s sex, it’s soul," she says.
Phèdre is playing in Melbourne at Malthouse Theatre, 17 May – 2 June and Sydney Opera House 6 – 29 June 2013. For further information visit www.bellshakespeare.com.au/Phèdre