Merton’s mediaeval chapel, the chosen location for this production of Jean Racine’s Phèdre in English, was suitably atmospheric. The bell started tolling at eight o’clock for the start of the play. The stage was set up in the transept, with the audience on either side looking across at one another. This choice of setting was an excellent start to what looked to be a promising rendition of the play; the sacred bareness of the stage gave all the right feelings to the expectant audience. The bell stopped tolling and the lights came on, and this theme of ending and starting each section with percussive instrument continued throughout.
The acting was not found wanting; battling against the reverberating acoustic of Merton Chapel, which was perhaps one of the drawbacks of the location, the cast managed to deliver their lines well. Although sometimes certain phrases were lost in the echo, it also provided the perfect accompaniment to dramatic scenes of tumultuous anger, such as those delivered by Jonathan Oakman as Theseus.
Bridget Dru captured the unravelling of Phaedra’s mind as she fell into madness, her dying moments holding everyone on tenterhooks, and the counterpoint between her and Grace Brockway as Oenone was good. Equally, the dialogue of Hugh Johnson as Hippolytus and Kenneth Savage as Theramenes was well done. Each actor had chosen how they wished to portray their characters and stuck with it throughout.
The directing made excellent use of the space. Rarely was having an audience on either side an issue. The use of the organ loft as a meeting point for the two lovers Hippolytus and Aricia was an excellent choice. However, the fact that some members of the audience could not really see this balcony action was a drawback. The wardrobe choices were consistent and clever, particularly with the female characters. Phaedra’s outfits were both fitting, but the first, scarf falling around her, struck me as particularly well chosen.
Overall it was a worthwhile performance. The story of the play was well put across through what is already excellent verse. The only displeasure was how cold the chapel was. Merton should really invest in some heating, but it was definitely worth wrapping up warm to enjoy the delights of this production.
**** 4 STARS
PHOTO/ Adam Diaper