If I had to sum up this play in one word, it would probably be “crescendo”. Hippolytus is a journey of emotions for both the audience and the cast, building up a genuine atmosphere of Greek tragedy. For various reasons it was somewhat difficult to fully engage with the performance at the beginning, but once the cast warmed up and broke the ice, the performance became flamboyantly amazing. It is staged outdoors in one of the prettiest quads in Oxford — Oriel’s newly refurbished third quad — a daring choice in mid-October. But with the help of heaters, hot drinks, blankets, gloves, and evening weather that was thankfully bearable, the outdoor setting seemed not too a bad choice after all.
Some of the strongest performances of the first half came from Spencer Klavan as Hippolytus, and Chloe Cheung as Phaedra. In his opening scene, Klavan vividly conveys his deep eusebeia (piety) for Artemis, the goddess of hunt and chastity. Phaedra is Hippolytus’s mother, quite literally madly in love with her own son, a punishment devised by Aphrodite for Hippolytus’s scornful attitude towards love. Cheung managed to be majestic and fragile at the same time, first trembling at the thought of her sinful passion, then frantically shouting to her nurse and raging with rapture. The rest of the ensemble, however, did not quite reach the same level as these performers. Aphrodite’s (Mia Smith’s) opening prologue seemed unfortunately anonymous — opening night, opening scene, and script in the original Greek are definitely to be taken into account, but the beginning failed to take off. While some actresses were more convincing than others in the chorus that later took centre stage, they initially struggled to work as an ensemble, as their performance was scattered with mismatched lines and approximate or imprecise gestures. The whole idea of the chorus of Greek tragedies is that its elements should act as a single unity (in their lines, they even speak in the third person singular), and this should be reflected in their words and movements. Sadly, at their first appearance, there was one flaw too many for the chorus to be seen as a real whole.
After Theseus’s (Dominique David-Vincent’s) entrance, however, the performance picked up considerable momentum. He brought a whole new life to the play, delivering every single line with real, tragic pathos. With sonorous voice, impeccable Greek diction, and astounding sense of rhythm, he added soul to his words, which is the biggest challenge for anyone acting in a (dead) foreign language. Particularly brilliant was his exchange with Hippolytus over the dead body of Phaedra. And at the end of the scene, when the chorus entered again, they were transformed. They seemed to have acquired a whole new cohesiveness, both in delivery and choreography. The music, which had so far been a mere addition to the play, became compelling and relevant, complementing the action in a meaningful way.
The crescendo continued with the entrance of the messenger (Joe Hill). In his deliberately hieratic attitude, which contrasts with Theseus’ expressiveness, he managed to convey the idea of ‘witness’ as he reported the terrible fate of Hippolytus, exiled and cursed by his father, and attacked by a bull sent from the sea by Poseidon. The messenger is almost a voice without a body, simply there to report the facts. In another Greek play, New College’s Oedipus Tyrannus last June, I had been struck by the expressiveness of the messenger, who has the awful job to relate the self-blinding of Oedipus. He described the events by miming them, making them sound (and almost appear) incredibly real. The director’s choice in the Hippolytus, by contrast, is to work more abstractly. The whole scene was dominated by the slow entrance of the chorus carrying blue drapes for the sea, and red velvet for the blood being suspended from the windows – a beautiful conceptual representation of the events.
At the end, when Hippolytus, wounded, is brought back on stage by the chorus of men, the crescendo reached its apex. Hippolytus, Theseus, and Artemis bring the play to a conclusion, with the goddess revealing the truth, and father and son finding reconciliation in the most moving scene of the play. By the end, one didn’t even need to look at the English surtitles to get a sense of what was happening, such is the intensity conveyed by the scene of dying Hippolytus. The end is the true culmination of the play, both as Euripides had devised it and as the actors have brought it to life. With a couple of tweaks, the crescendo could start even sooner, which would make the whole play even more powerful.
‘Hippolytus’ runs at Oriel College until Saturday 17th October. For more information and to book tickets please visit their website.