For Greek tragedy to work for contemporary audiences it has to be done extremely well. This version of Euripides’ Hippolytus by Timberlake Wertenbaker staged in modern dress by Temple Theatre is a worthy attempt to make it accessible but it fails to bring alive the plight of the protagonists with any great emotional force.
The story is simple. Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, is determined to exact revenge on Prince Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of Theseus, King of Athens, for spurning her attentions in favour of worshipping at the shrine of Artemis, goddess of chastity and hunting.
Aphrodite has infused Phaedra, Theseus’ wife, with intense feelings of lust for her stepson Hippolytus, but his disgusted rejection of her leads to the tragic downfall of all three human protagonists.
If Greek tragedy is performed successfully, we should not feel that human beings are merely pawns in the games that deities play, so that the significance of individuals’ action is undermined. There should be a strong sense of the mystery of life in which their flaws enable people to be easily led into understandable mistakes that can have disastrous, wide-ranging consequences. In a way, the gods exploit the predisposition which is already there, rather than imposing destiny from above. Thus Aphrodite can work her insidious power on Phaedra because she is a hot-blooded woman, whereas the rather cold, ‘my body is my temple’ Hippolytus resists her.
There is a lack of intensity in exposing such archetypal psychological dilemmas in this production. While Wertenbaker’s text is laudably succinct and direct (albeit containing a smattering of Greek), Mike Tweddle’s considered but lacklustre direction never strikes home with the true horror and pity of the tragedy, so that there is no real sense of catharsis at the end. The minimalist design of Amy Levene gives a nod to classical heritage with stone plinths without making much impact, while the music of Alex Silverman played and sung by the chorus of local minstrels resembles more whimsical folksiness than sublime ritual.
The cast are on the whole rather muted. Paul O’Mahony’s Hippolytus comes across as a sanctimonious, holier than thou figure rather than a pure, athletic young man cut off in his prime. As Phaedra Katherine Tozer is more self-indulgent drama queen than someone who struggles proudly to control the emotions that are destroying her life. But David Burke succeeds in showing how Theseus changes from vengeful rage to broken guilt as he realizes he cannot undo his terrible injustice, while as Phaedra’s well-intentioned but misguided Nurse and confidante Ann Penfold speaks the verse beautifully. Jane Warwick is the virginal Artemis and Beatrice Curnew the vampish Aphrodite.
Of course there is very little action on stage as the events are described rather than enacted, so it is essential to build up an atmosphere of foreboding, which this production does not do. The result is a clear, prosaic account of a tragic story without reaching the heart of its full-blooded passionate poetry.
Hippolytus will be at Greenwich Theatre from 3-7 March 2009