Review: Hippolytus

Greek tragedy meets business process management

Charlotte Powell, Pamela Parry and Natasha Alderslade in Hippolytus

Where: White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London, SE11 4DJ
When: 18th May-13th June 2010, Tuesday-Saturday: 7:30pm, Sunday: 5:00pm
How long: An hour and a half with no interval
How much: £13 (£10 concessions)
Tickets from: Ticket Web or 020 7793 9193 (leave a message with the number of tickets you wish to reseverve and on which date. They will only get back to you if there are no seats available.)

Hippolytus is a Greek tragedy by Euripedes, in case you didn’t know. In it, the Greek goddess of love and lust, Aphrodite, is furious that Hippolytus rejects her in favour of a chaste existence and seeks bloody revenge, destroying everything and everyone around him. As spurned Greek goddesses called Aphrodite were/are want to do.

However, this production is based on a new translation by David Crook that “emulates the poetry of the Greek text using a modern language through which it engages the audience as Euripides’ play would have engaged its 5th Century BC Greek audience”.

Is this true? Does it work? Well, only if you’re in middle management or a big fan of Blake’s 7.

Since we’re all modern and webby, here’s a video trailer of the production.

Nick Lawson as HippolytusPlot (from Wikipedia – contains spoilers)
The play is set in Troezen, a coastal town in the northeastern Peloponnese. Theseus, the king of Athens, is serving a year’s voluntary exile after having murdered a local king and his sons. His illegitimate son Hippolytus, whose mother is the Amazon Hippolyta, has been trained here since childhood by the king of Troezen, Pittheus.

At the opening of the play Aphrodite, Goddess of love, explains that Hippolytus has sworn chastity and refuses to revere her. Instead, he honors the Goddess of the hunt, Artemis. This has led her to initiate a plan of vengeance on Hippolytus. When Hippolytus went to Athens two years previously Aphrodite inspired Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him.

Hippolytus appears with his followers and shows reverence to a statue of Artemis, a chaste goddess. A servant warns him about his overt disdain for Aphrodite, but Hippolytus refuses to listen to him.

The chorus, consisting of young married women of Troezen, enters and describes how Phaedra is not eating or sleeping. Phaedra, sickly, appears with her Nurse. After an agonizing discussion, Phaedra finally gives in to her nurse’s demands and confesses why she is ill: she loves Hippolytus. The Nurse and the Chorus are shocked. Phaedra explains that she must starve herself and die with her honor intact. However, the Nurse quickly retracts her initial response and tells Phaedra that she has a magical charm to cure her. However, in an aside she reveals different plans.Mike Aherne as Theseus The nurse tells Hippolytus of Phaedra’s desire, after making him swear an oath that he will not tell anyone else. He reacts with a furious, misogynistic tirade on the ‘poisonous’ nature of women. Since the secret is out, Phaedra believes she is ruined. After making the Chorus swear secrecy, she goes inside and hangs herself.

Theseus returns and discovers his wife’s dead body. Since the Chorus is sworn to secrecy, they cannot tell Theseus why she killed herself. Theseus discovers a letter on Phaedra’s body, which clearly places the blame for her death on Hippolytus. Theseus takes this to mean he raped Phaedra and, enraged, he curses his son to death or at least exile. To execute the curse Theseus calls upon his father, the god Poseidon, who has promised to grant his son three wishes. Hippolytus enters and protests his innocence but cannot tell the truth because of the binding oath that he swore. Taking his wife’s letter as proof, Theseus exiles his son.

The Chorus sings a lament for Hippolytus.

A messenger enters and describes a gruesome scene to Theseus; as Hippolytus got in his chariot to leave the kingdom, a bull roared out of the sea, frightening his horses, which dashed his chariot among the rocks, dragging Hippolytus behind. Hippolytus seems to be dying. The messenger protests Hippolytus’ innocence, but Theseus refuses to believe him.

Theseus is pleased with Hippolytus’ suffering until Artemis appears and tells him the truth. She explains that his son was innocent and that it was Phaedra who lied. Although the goddess admonishes Theseus’ decision, she ultimately recognizes that the blame falls on Aphrodite. Hippolytus is carried in half alive, and Artemis promises to avenge Hippolytus by killing a man whom Aphrodite holds dear. Finally, Hippolytus forgives his father, and then he dies.

Is it any good?
Charlotte Powell as Aphrodite It is quite painfully bad, I’m afraid.

I’m not going to blame the cast, who are actually uniformly good to very good: the goddesses are all very good, and Nick Lawson’s Hippolytus is very pleasing.

I’m not going to blame the direction, which is good but a little static, with long scenes of people standing around giving speeches to each other from opposite sides of the stage without moving.

I’m not going to blame the set design or the costuming which are both lovely – not ancient Greek at all, but a combination of styles from across the ages (when are Greek tragedies ever done in full costume, with masks and with no actresses anyway?), with a nifty way of showing divinity.

Lost in translation
No, the problem is the translation. It’s horrible. I really sat in awe of the actors’ ability to even get the words out of their mouths, let alone inject emotion into them.

While the plot and general gist of the lines is pretty much the same as the original, albeit without singing or music, it’s as if the translator had done a Joey from Friends and run an English translation of the play through a thesaurus – a thesaurus created by someone in business process management. Why use one word when you can use six? Why have poetry when you can have jargon?

“He stands before you as visual proof!”

“We are striding into a nexus of ramifications!”

“It is a poison injected into my veins that no wonder-drug could cure!”

“The horse was in an apoplectic frenzy!”

“He tied the reins to the centre-bar of the chariot”

“Her butter-wouldn’t-melt attitude…”

And so on. Literally every line is like that. It’s a cruel thing to inflict on the audience. To their credit, there were only a few laughs from the audience, but in a Greek tragedy, any number of laughs greater than zero is usually unexpected.

Daphne Alexander as ArtemisThe play’s the thing
The play itself is a classic, of course, winning Euripedes his first prize, and it’s to the company’s credit that they haven’t played with the plot at all, or added speeches for audience members who might not be up on all the referenced myths (eg Semele and Zeus). Whether you believe in or have an interest in the Greek gods or not, the idea of a step-mother’s inappropriate love for her step-son causing her downfall – with her revenge against his rejection coming from the grave – is a powerful one that soap operas are still mining, and Aphrodite’s scheme is as intricate as you’d expect from a goddess.

Theseus, despite being the hero of Athens, comes out of this play as badly as he comes out of just about every one he’s in (why was he their hero, again?). Despite Euripedes’ mostly ill-deserved reputation for misogyny, Hippolytus’s bizarre rejection and hatred of women (given his mum was an Amazon) ensures he gets an audience-pleasing kicking from the gods. If there’s a moral (other than don’t piss off the gods), it’s that love denied will tear you apart – and that probably stands as true today as it did then, Aphrodite or no.

Worth going?
It’s always worth going to see a good performance of a Greek tragedy, and provided you’ve bought plenty of drinks from the bar, you’ll be able to pass the pain threshold of the translation and enjoy the performances, set design, etc. But if you’re teetotal, don’t even think about going.

Rating: 2/5

The audience
Very well behaved, although one did knock a glass over and there were a couple of inappropriate titters.

The White Bear Theatre

The theatre
Again, in true Joey from Friends style, it’s a theatre and a pub! The theatre is at the back of a typical south London pub (I had to pass under ladders and over cables to get there while they were installing a big TV for the footie, but you hopefully won’t have to). You can buy tickets on the door – if you pre-booked, remember to take your booking reference since we’re talking “a woman with a tin” rather than anything computerised here, although you can give your name and credit card number and they’ll pretty much assume you’re telling the truth.

The theatre itself is a studio, a very small, airless room with room for about 50 people on two rows of benches. Get there early and pick the front row if you’re small, because it’s a free-for-all for seats and they’re all at the same level.

Drink prices: £3.50 for a pint of Bullmers, £1.80 for half a Strongbow. Basically, south London pub prices. And you can take your drinks in with you.

HippolytusThe programme
Free, but just a guide to the actors’ credits.

Other reviews
The Stage, Remotegoat, Time Out.

Mike Aherne
Natasha Alderslade
Daphne Alexander
Cameron Harris
Nick Lawson
David Palliser
Pamela Parry
Charlotte Powell
Amy Simpson
Phillip Whiteman

Director: Andy Brunskill
Designer: Mike Lees
Lighting Designer: Anna Sbokou
Producer: Alex Jones
Assistant Director: Diana Mumbi
Stage Manager: Andrew Davies

PS I only found out about this last week, which is when they sent the press release out. It started on 18th May. PR needs work, wouldn’t you say?