Toronto
2 min

Classical gas

Daytime soap opera, Greek style

King Theseus, presumed dead, returns to find that his wife Phèdre has become romantically linked to his son, Hippolytus. In convoluted daytime-television terms, Nicky and Victor from The Young And The Restless are battling it out over a misidentified whorish daughter-in-law who has kissed her husband’s father passionately during an indiscreet heart to heart.



Soulpepper’s production of Phèdre, a classic tale that has moved through the hands of such illustrious dramatists as Euripides and Racine, finds uneven status in modern theatre by way of late British poet Ted Hughes’ contemporary translation. Hughes deflated the elevated language of the Greek text, de-ornamented the fanciful French rhyming version, and located Phèdre within a “simpler” poetic tradition. Soulpepper’s production of Hughes’ version becomes a lighthearted look at trauma. This is jarring for spectators expecting the historically distanced loftiness of the Greeks, or the aesthetic elegance of a French raconteur. Tragicomic dissonance can, however, provide a 21st-century spectator with a fun tale exploring mundane details of matrimonial bliss among the high and the mighty, the young and the restless, the bold and the beautiful.



In this lavishly produced soap opera, Nancy Palk’s Phèdre excels when she locks horns with her aide Oenone, played by Tanya Jacobs. Jacobs, a flawless performer who gives fellow actors and audience the theatrical energy great theatre craves, supports Palk brilliantly as they render Phèdre a single-minded story of how one woman misuses the help in a botched attempt to disentangle herself from pre-ordained romantic chaos.



Jonathan Watton gives a surprisingly understated performance as Hipploytus. One would expect smouldering passion for his beloved Aricia, as it hatefully butts up against his stepmother’s lust. Instead, one gets a petulant schoolboy whose love and anger read as annoyed disenchantment. A clear-cut case of an actor who should have taken his shirt off halfway through the show, Watton appears proficient and thoughtful but lacks the physical and emotional layers his fellow actors have mastered.



William Webster’s Theramene rises above his cohorts inert theatricality and delivers a marvelous performance as aide to a prince he clearly loves in some pseudo- Platonic (non)sense, while Yanna Macintosh’s Aricia is physically arresting and emotionally engaging.



Diego Matamoros’ powerful turn as Theseus brings energy to Watton’s performance but comes late and makes one wonder why Hippolytus responded so dissimilarly to the women in his life. Direction by Daniel Brooks relies on strong, simple symmetry that enhances an inferno-like set by Dany Lyne. The setting is complimented by Lyne’s black and steel grey costumes, shot with stark elegant lines and just a touch of disco inferno satin and beads on Phèdre’s act two gown.



Soulpepper’s production of Phèdre is an uneven, hilarious tragedy. Its eclectic glory attests to the timelessness and the entertainment value family dysfunction continues to provide centuries after it all began.



PHÈDRE.

$28-$46. Till Sat, Aug 16.

Du Maurier Theatre Centre.

231 Queens Quay W.

(416) 973-4000.