Merton Chapel is a fine setting for Racine’s Phèdre. Set among the heroes and villains of Greek legend, it nonetheless tells a sharply human story of the conflict between desire and duty, focused upon the central character of the wife of Theseus, who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus. The location called attention to the mythic and religious resonances of the play in a way that a secular space could probably never manage. The language, translated from French alexandrine verse into English iambic pentameter, need not sound out of place in such a grand location; this translation was occasionally clunky, but overall very serviceable. Nevertheless the space was not without its challenges; the traverse staging meant that if an actor was speaking towards the other audience there was always the danger the sound would melt into vowels as it echoed round the chambers. This acoustic, whilst an occasional problem, was also beneficial at moments of high drama, allowing actors free rein without fear of deafening the front row. The production made good use of the space, though sometimes moves that were necessary to spread the actors across the expanse of acting area felt a little counter-intuitive.
The production was aiming for an evocation of 1960s southern Italy, ‘where passions were held accountable to the over-riding authority of the Catholic Church’, although the non-descript nature of the costumes combined with the fact that it was extraordinarily cold in the chapel made the production seem more timeless than specifically historically located. However there were some fine performances, with Bridget Dru as Phaedra making a very convincing job of one of the hardest tragic roles in the canon. Hugh Johnson found a sensitive path through Hippolytus’ journey and Sophie Eager’s Ismene provided notably good support. The entire cast can be commended for their vocal and gestural competence.
The production was at its strongest in the second half, when the conflict between characters really began to take off. The Merton Floats have mounted a solid, literate production of a challenging play upon which many a professional director has fallen.
The Merton Floats’ Phèdre runs until Thursday 7th March at 7.55pm in Merton Chapel. Tickets £6/£5, to book please email firstname.lastname@example.org