Production: Phaedra
Venue: Drama Barn
Starring: Leo Amiel, Tom Ellis, Laura Henderson, Rob Donnell
Rating: *

Though the initial performance of Phaedra flopped when it was performed in 1677, it has since been hailed as the greatest of Jean Racine’s plays. The 1677 failure of his masterpiece caused Racine to sever all connections to the stage; having already been so traumatized by a bad performance, it is doubtful that he would have survived this one. The discomfort that Leo Amiel showed at being on stage was distressing, and the feeble attempts by Tom Ellis to inject characterisation could not save the lethargic opening of the play.

The character of Phaedra was grotesque and exaggerated, but it was only by the strained efforts of Laura Henderson, who played Phaedra, that energy was injected into the play. Thankfully, in the second half of this production, Rob Donell came to her rescue, displaying a range of emotions all the more impressive by comparison with the other actors. The final speech by Phaedra was well delivered and verged on touching.

The set of five transparent white curtains served to obscure the actors, widening the separation of audience and action. It was a beautiful and interesting take on the theme of calculated ambiguities present, and could possibly have worked with a better cast.

The tragedy of this production rested not so much in the action of the play, but rather in the appalling lack of acting ability.


  1. Appalling lack of acting ability, eh? One star, eh?

    Why, just why, be nasty about the actors? What does it add? You’re a student, they’re students. You paid four fity, at most. They didn’t spit in your face, they didn’t break your arm, they didn’t set fire to you. Words like ‘feeble’, ‘distressing’ and ‘grotesque’ surely have no place in a free student paper. Surely?

    You do not work for the Times. They were not performing at the National. And, in any case, all other sources agree that they were good.

    Being unnecessarily barbaric and scathing isn’t going to win you any awards for journalism, it’s just going to deeply upset a group of extremely nice people. I’m sure that wasn’t what you set out to do, but…

    Perhaps you could clarify things a little here?


  2. Josefine,

    While being grateful for the personal review, I feel compelled to query your article. I feel you may have misunderstood the play and, like Will, I would like a little clarification.

    Leo Amiel played the character Hippolytus. You say that Hippolytus showed ‘discomfort’ at being on stage. However, the character Hippolytus: firstly, wishes to leave to search for his father; secondly, has Phaedra declare her love for him and cannot wait to run away; thirdly, is an awkward man declaring his love to Aricia; and finally, has his father threatening to kill him and telling him to flee. All of these scenes, it would seem to me, would require the actor to be showing ‘discomfort’ on stage. Would that not suggest that the acting was ideal? Similarly, Tom Ellis’ character Theramenes is very much an empty shell. In the early stages of the play, he is merely used by Racine as a rebound for Hippolytus to explain his distress and set the scene for the play. Theramenes is also a clever mirror image of the much more important and interesting character, Oenone. They are both sidekicks to the main characters. I think that you have hit the nail on the head when you say that it was a ‘lethargic opening’, but to pin that blame on a secondary character would seem, to me, outrageous.

    This leads me to my next point, you suggest that there is an ‘appalling lack of acting ability’ and yet you make no mention of half the cast. Not least Oenone, who has more lines than Theseus or Theramenes, and is important for her influence with Phaedra. The last three character had so few lines, I would suggest that it is ridiculous to claim that they were ‘appalling’, simply because they had so little stage time.

    Finally, your comments regarding Phaedra are very difficult to understand because they are broken up in your article. You suggest that Phaedra’s character was ‘grotesque and exaggerated’. However, the way you say it implies that the exaggeration is Laura’s fault. On the one hand, if you are criticising Laura, I feel that, again, you have misunderstood the character. Phaedra’s character certainly is as you say; Phaedra is out of her mind, does not eat, is in love with her husband’s son and wishes to die. Acting grotesquely and over-the-top mad would seem to be ideal. On the other hand, if you are praising Laura’s efforts I am even more confused. This would mean you have praised the two of the main actors in Theseus and Phaedra for the energy they injected. These two are the main movers of the plot- would this not make your last statement, that the acting was ‘appalling’, completely obsolete?

    I would suggest that the problems you had were with understanding the nature of the characters, and thus the play itself. In my opinion there could be a couple of reasons for this. One thing that came up while rehearsing was that we may have cut too much of the script, rendering the play difficult to understand. Moreover, I personally feel that the translation chosen was not the best, and does not do the original French justice. This could easily have impacted on the effect of the play because it is a tragedy- the beauty of the play is in the script.

    I accept that this article is a reflection of your opinion, but I would very much appreciate some clarification of these points.


  3. Very unfair review this one. It wasn’t a great script by any stretch of the imagination, but in general the performances were of a reasonable standard, equally as good as the usual “clique”, to me it was refreshing to see new people on stage and not the usual mix of mid-20s actors who should really have found something better to do by now. (And no, I was NOT in the cast, nor do I know any of the cast). For those of you who are unhappy with this review, check out The Yorker’s, which was much fairer.


  4. I must agree with the previous responses – Phaedra certainly held its own as a production, and the cast seemed up to the challenge. “Appalling” is far off the mark. The set also it must be said was excellent, showing an original use of the space in the drama barn.


  5. 1 Jul ’08 at 2:06 pm

    John Rushton

    One quick comment, avoiding the obvious, pointlessness of the trio of redundant reviews this piece of tripe came from… I enjoy how the picture for this article was the aladdin lamp. Nice work Nouse.