Tag Archives: National Theatre

“Hadestown” at the Lyric Theatre

One of the first big musicals of the year – there are plenty coming – this much anticipated show deserves great success. Anaïs Mitchell’s retelling of two Greek myths – the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Persephone’s imprisonment by Hades – is ambitious and powerful. It has an originality and a distinct voice that make it stand out.

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Gloria Onitiri

The show visited the National Theatre back in 2018 and was then a Tony Award-winning hit in New York. This tweaked version has a British cast (with lots of accents), who give suitably divine performances. The young lovers, played Dónal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young, perfectly embody the show’s theme of hope. While as Persephone and Hades, Gloria Onitiri and Zachary James have superb voices and give performances full of nuance. Leading them all, as a kind of narrator warning us how sad and ancient the story is, Melanie La Barrie is a stunning Hermes.

Grace Hodgett Young and Dónal Finn in Hadestown
Grace Hodgett Young and Dónal Finn

Adapting Greek myths is perennial. But Mitchell makes the attempt to rescue Eurydice from death so exciting that I suspected the end was going to be changed! There’s plenty of thought behind these versions of the characters. Finn’s Orpheus is gauche musician and Hodgett Young’s depiction of a damaged young woman are both moving. Persephone has taken to drink to deal with her overbearing husband, and Hades reimagined as a mine owner and industrialist is a very neat idea. Rachel Chavkin’s direction makes the most of all this background work, as well as creating a fantastic ensemble with starring roles for three commanding Fates (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel).

Placing the action out of time and place is a smart enough move but sometimes snags: this is a generic dystopia, with climate concerns and income inequality. Alongside are touches of the 1930s and a setting that is clearly the American South. All mashed together, it’s a bit mind boggling. And if you made a case that Hadestown is politically naive, it would be hard to argue with that. This show wants to inspire, sometimes too much. But there’s nothing wrong with musical theatre focusing on a better world. There are rousing, goosebump moments and the sincerity has an earthy base. It’s the power of storytelling that electrifies the show – tales aided by song – and brilliantly so.

Rachel Hauck’s set does have surprises – that work well – and it’s easy to appreciate why Bradley King’s lighting earned him a gong. But for a lot of the show the action feels cramped, and David Neumann’s choreography somewhat wasted. The project’s origin as a concept album is clear. But, given the score, that isn’t a big problem.

Hadestown has exceptional music. The term folk opera is tempting (it reflects Mitchell’s roots), and there’s that sense of communal storytelling that is pivotal to the action: the act of re-enacting is the piece’s raison d’être. But let’s not sell the sources short – folk is mixed with just as much jazz, with touches of pop and rock that are hugely exciting. You never quite know what’s coming next. The show is sung throughout, and it’s clear, concise poetry, full of memorable rhymes and lines. It’s not just that each song is good, and works dramatically, but that they all work together and cohere marvellously. This story may be old, but I hope it goes on and on.

Until December 2024

www.uk.hadestown.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Motive and the Cue” at the Noël Coward Theatre

This blog is about loving theatre. So, Jack Thorne’s play, which goes behind the scenes of Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet, is a welcome transfer from the National Theatre. With Sam Mendes directing, it’s sure to thrill theatregoers. It really is a great show.

There’s a trick that’s neat, if not uncommon. Like lots of writers who use Shakespeare’s quotes, the play’s the thing that tells us about the creative process and the people who are performing. The idea structures the play (each scene comes with a quote) and provides a quest – Burton must find “his” Hamlet.

While there’s debate about tradition and youth, with Burton and Gielgud representing different ages, there’s a struggle with the thrill of seeing the two greats depicted. Both are vulnerable – Gielgud’s career is in the dumps and Burton’s drinking on the rise – but we never question their genius. And the fact they are at odds adds a lot of humour. Almost every line is entertaining.

There are problems. I guess you wouldn’t see the play without knowing Hamlet… but that knowledge is essential. And not a passing acquaintance with the play, either. When Thorne does provide background, it rings hollow – there’s too much listing of achievements. It’s frustrating as a solution is present. Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor, is the outsider who could help the audience. Possibly a desire not to patronise Taylor won out. But the character ends up underused. A great shame given Tuppence Middleton’s strong performance in the role.

Which leads to another question. This rehearsal room is full. The production boasts a strong cast that includes Allan Corduner and Sarah Woodward in great form. We all know theatre is a collective effort. But the play is overwhelmed by its central duo. Mirroring Burton’s dilemma – ego takes over. Despite Gielgud’s effort as his director, we don’t see him learning much from anyone. You might argue this is a play about how theatre works… that doesn’t show us how theatre works.

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Mark-Gatiss and Johnny Flynn

It’s hard to know how much such quibbles matter. Mendes brings great style to the show, with the help of designer Es Devlin and lighting from Jon Clark. As well as wringing out big emotion – both Burton and Gielgud’s demons get an airing – the comedy is perfect. And while the lead performances share the danger of unbalancing the production, they are spectacular.

Johnny Flynn plays Burton with breath-taking charisma. It’s a harsh depiction, especially when he is drunk, but you’d still forgive the character almost anything. And you’re convinced his Hamlet was amazing. But since the show contains a battle of egos… Gielgud wins and Mark Gatiss, who takes the role, gives the performance of his career. The impersonation is remarkable – I swear Gatiss starts to look like the man. We see plenty of snobbery but come to understand it as a defence mechanism. Not only is he funnier, in Gatiss’ hands the older man becomes a figure of huge sympathy.

It is with the figure of Gielgud that the transitory nature of theatre, the important role its history plays, the creative struggle and bravery behind putting on a show all become clearer. So…Gielgud is doing a lot of work. And Mendes gets to remind us how important the director is! Burton finds his Hamlet. But nothing happens without Gielgud.

Until 24 March 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Mark Douet

“Infinite Life” at the National Theatre

Annie Baker’s new play might be the quietest you’ll ever see in a theatre… which has an appeal. Six characters sit around on sun-loungers talking. They come and go a little. They are silent a lot of the time. And they never raise their voices.

The women, and one man, are on a fasting retreat, with aims that vary from miracle cures to managing chronic pain. But nothing really happens. There’s an obsession with medical language that Baker makes magically poetic. Yet we learn surprisingly little about this taciturn lot.

Time is punctuated by announcements from Sofi, whose struggle and story is our focus. As she becomes weaker from not eating (suffering is part of the procedure, of course) there are surreal touches: some smart, some funny. But even oddity isn’t overplayed by Baker.

Credit to director James Macdonald, who tackles the piece with steely nerve – so much silence! Is it hard to handle… or even stay awake? And what to do as a performer? The cast is calm and in control. Christina Kirk has it comparatively easy as Sofi; we get to hear plenty of her troubles – and fantasies – through tortured late-night phone calls. The rest – Marylouise Burke, Mia Katigbak, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Pete Simpson – all impress with close work. But the restraints imposed on them are the key. These are glimpses at lives. Baker’s dialogue is accomplished, but they characters aren’t close to each other and we aren’t allowed close to them either.

There’s a point to all the reserve. While Infinite Life is austere, the play is also philosophically rich. The question of other minds is brought into focus by it all and by discussions of pain. The extreme treatment volunteered for would please a Stoic, but it makes those undergoing it lose touch with reality. And don’t forget denial can be indulgent. Talk of souls becomes explicitly linked with religion, energy and flux. All this on an empty stomach.

It’s hard to fault the play’s originality – the production is intelligent and brave. But Infinite Life is hard work. Lots of plays tackle philosophy – and Baker is good at it – but you do have to be in the market for metaphysics to buy this one. I’m just glad I had an overpriced sandwich beforehand.

Until 13 January 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Witches” at the National Theatre

Given its record of seasonal family treats, you might describe the National Theatre’s Christmas shows as venerable. But few have been as eagerly anticipated as this new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic. It’s a thrill to report that it lives up to expectations.

Lucy Kirkwood’s book is superb. The action is swift and ambitious, scary and complete with the surreal touches that Dahl fans love. It takes kids seriously – specifically that they can be interested in mortality – so, it’s suitably dark as well as humorous, with risqué touches that make it wickedly funny.

It can’t be as easy as Kirkwood, and director Lyndsey Turner, make it look. Not only is the book well-loved, but there’s a big coven of witches who need special effects – they turn children into mice – and that’s before you add singing and dancing. The budget and the cast are huge, the illusions (Chris Fisher and Will Houstoun) grand, and Lizzie Clachan has excelled herself with the set and costume design.

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Daniel Rigby and company

Turner might use the Olivier better – the show would be more at home in a proscenium theatre. But, like Kirkwood, she has excelled at making the most of the characters – a collection of roles performers can get stuck into and enjoy themselves with. There’s our hero Luke’s witch-hunting grandmother, the manager of a hotel and its chef. These are super roles for Sally Ann Triplett, Daniel Rigby and Irvine Iqbal, respectively. Suitably larger than life, the adults take over from the children (who are very good, by the way).

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Katherine Kingsley and her Coven

Not forgetting, of course, the witches themselves. Katherine Kingsley has a great time as the Grand High Witch, bringing some Dietrich-style glamour to the role. She commands the crowd and has a powerful voice. But all the coven are strong and work superbly as an ensemble; they sound great right from the brilliant opening number, while Stephen Mear’s choreography has exciting touches.

And Dave Malloy’s music is fantastic. That there are so many adult voices in the show helps. The songs are more than catchy and varied, just as the lyrics, from Malloy and Kirkwood, are more than witty and clever. There are surprises here… hurrah! Careful modern touches (like TikTok) make the lines sparkle. The music has bold moments of percussion, repetition and acapella.

Can you remember the last time a family show felt this fresh and exciting? Oh yes, it was Matilda! The ‘other’ Dahl musical and still one of the best shows around. There are similarities, of course, but a lot here is bigger – the ambition and the sound. What they really have in common is their originality – both have a voice of their own, and everyone, of any age, can enjoy them.

Until 27 January 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Effect” at the National Theatre

The well-publicised premise behind Lucy Prebble’s hit play is shrewd: when two people on a medical trial fall in love, is it real, or is it because of the drug they are taking?  The story is an easy sell… you want to know, don’t you?

Watching Tristan and Connie, who have volunteered for the experiment, falling for one another is great. It’s funny at times, as well as intense, and it provides big roles for Paapa Eddiedu and Taylor Russell. A strong couple, the performances are eye-catching and confident, a shoo-in for awards.

Yet it is the way The Effect opens and develops that impresses most. And the director of this revival, the estimable Jamie Lloyd, reaps tension from every idea and emotion in the play. Like the script, the production fizzes – and so will your mind.

For Dr Sealy, the proselytising scientist behind the experiment, falling in love is part of fighting depression, a way of dealing with ageing and even resolving philosophical questions of mind and body. Modesty is not his forte.

While Sealy is in charge, he doesn’t run the show – that’s down to Dr James, who is the voice of reason (you might guess that becomes an irony), reminding us of how complicated people are and thereby questioning the experiment and even the science itself. 

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Michele Austin

These are two more fantastic roles, brilliantly performed. Sealey is too much the villain and his faults serve the play too neatly, so more credit to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who makes the role plausible. But the play really belongs to Michele Austin, whose caring Dr James has personal problems exacerbated by the job. While Eddiedu and Russell are moving, Austin and her character pack the most emotional punch.

The strength of The Effect comes with Prebble’s brilliant plotting. Questions of placebo and bias land like bombs. Lloyd reflects this with dramatic lighting and music from Jon Clark and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante – both are strong, if not strictly necessary.

Prebble also considers the audiences’ own psychology, expectations and prejudices in our reactions to her characters. It proves difficult to watch someone take a Stoop test (dramatically projected onto the stage) without responding yourself, and impossible not to have bias when information is revealed. A mirroring and layering between action on stage and in our own heads builds – and the effect is profound.

Until 7 October 2023

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Pillowman” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

It’s surprising that this is the first London revival and West End debut for Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play. Given its author’s fame and the work’s reputation, you might have expected to see the piece more often. It’s worth the wait. The Pillowman is every bit as puzzling and disturbing as I recalled from its National Theatre debut. And if you don’t know the play, then prepare to scratch and shake your head in equal measure.

The reputation isn’t hard to fathom. McDonagh always challenges his audiences intelligently and there’s plenty to think about, while pushing the bounds of good taste makes us laugh a lot. The language is blue (less shocking even since 2003) but, given how much child torture and murder features in The Pillowman, it should still be a hard sell. Even those who like the blackest of humour might blanch at the stories told here.

The teller of said stories is one Katurian, who we meet being interrogated my police in a nameless totalitarian state. The questioning is odd, but just as unsettling are Katurian’s morbid tales, which are quoted to her by the police and told in asides. And that isn’t quite right, is it? All our support should surely be with the writer. But the power of these stories, riffs on fairy tales that even Hans Christian Andersen would think go too far, is the focus. Because someone has been acting them out!

It seems a bit mean to say who the perpetrator is – it’s a good twist. But McDonagh plays with expectations marvellously. Firstly, Katurian’s brother, Michal, who is mentally challenged, loses our sympathy. Then those awful cops start to look… maybe not so bad? They have a story to tell, too. What Katurian gets up to made me gasp. The price this writer is willing to pay for posterity is another shocker.

Such strong material isn’t automatically easy to bring to the stage – McDonagh is demanding of performers. Director Matthew Dunster has engendered fine acting while showing commendable respect for the script. The policemen, Paul Kaye and Steve Pemberton, aren’t strangers to dark humour. If their performances lack surprises, they are still accomplished. Matthew Tennyson makes Michal suitably spooky, and his chemistry with his onstage sister is unnerving. But the star of the night is Lily Allen, who is revelatory in the lead role. Allen shows huge control as her character faces constant violence and horror, indicating how smart Katurian is, yet never going for cheap laughs. Above all, the importance of the work to Katurian is convincing, providing a sense of reality in a play that has so much fantasy and from which nightmares ensue.

Until 2 September 2023

www.pillowmanplay.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Dear England” at the National Theatre

Football is not my thing. But, like a lot of sports, the beautiful game (that’s what people who like it call it, don’t you know) makes good theatre. Director Rupert Goold’s production of James Graham’s new play has a lot of energy and brings out the drama on the field and behind the scenes. Even if sports psychology and penalty shootouts don’t excite you, they work well on stage.

Tracking the England team’s recent history, there’s a neat theatrical parallel as our hero, manager Gareth Southgate, talks of “storytelling”. Using a psychologist, Pippa Grange, and building team spirit has long-term aims to create a new narrative. The duo, by far the main protagonists, prove inspirational, with excellent performances from Joseph Fiennes and Gina McKee that make them easy to root for.

It seems that the team’s problem is expectation and what’s needed is “learning how to lose”. The reasoning is presented clearly and leads to moving moments. Time is spent over Southgate’s own personal trauma from missing a penalty. And emphasis on the players’ youth is smart. If issues of racism and sexism might be explored more, seeing the people behind the players is a sound move.

The football team parallels a theatrical ensemble and here close-knit performances of multiple roles are consistently strong. Such praise comes despite my not appreciating the show’s humour. Nearly every character is a famous face. If, like me, you don’t know them, the audience reaction is baffling. Let’s just report that the loose impersonations go down very well indeed. Will Close’s Harry Kane is a particular standout.

Graham is a political playwright and obviously wants his work to be about more than football. Beneath the team’s problem is the idea of English exceptionalism – thinking we will win despite evidence to the contrary. Hinting at a connection to wider political events does not always convince, and brief appearances from prime ministers seem wasted. But the wish to question what it is to be English, as you are about to represent England, seems sensible enough. Staging the play at the nation’s theatre is fitting.

Like Southgate it seems, Graham wants to raise questions. The play grows in power as a result. A letter by Southgate, which inspires the play’s title and is judiciously quoted, makes big claims – compassion and change are highlighted. The focus is on optimism (which makes a nice change nowadays). Goold’s expansive energy complements this perfectly. Despite not winning the World Cup, the play ends on sense of hope that is bigger than football. And that’s a great goal.

Until 11 August 2023

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Dancing at Lughnasa” at the National Theatre

Framed around the childhood of a narrator we take to be the playwright, Brian Friel’s award-winning 1990 play is a powerfully subtle piece about memory. We see the frustrated lives of an unmarried mother and her four spinster sisters in 1930s rural Ireland. Beneath mundane details are suggestions of what these women really felt and glimpses of what they wished for.

Running parallel to events, ruminations on recollection itself are exquisitely delivered by Tom Vauhgan-Lawlor, who plays this all-important narrator. It’s clear that this vision of the past is about emotion rather than action. We shouldn’t trust what we see (although note how tempting it is to do so), not because we are being misled but since so much is unknown. The tone is melancholic, despite many moments of affection and joy. 

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Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

The pace set by director Josie Rourke is appropriately calm. During almost three hours little happens (and ‘big’ events are always off stage). It is the characters who are enthralling with every detail worthy of attention. What we get are snatches remembered from youth – riddles, toys and jokes or arguments that impress themselves on a child – small moments, but vivid.

There are larger themes in Dancing at Lughnasa – big changes in Irish politics and society, with the theme of emigration regularly infringing on life – and Rourke carefully follows Friel’s lead to handle these, mostly, lightly. An exception is Father Jack, a brother who has returned from missionary work having ‘gone native’. The link to the play’s wider pagan themes is stated rather than explored, an unusual misstep, which leaves Ardal O’Hanlon somewhat wasted in the role.

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Siobhan McSweeney Ardal OHanlon and Justine Mitchell

The detail in the writing is captured in a set of strong performances with each actor having to portray frustrations felt as well as a sense of opportunities lost. Our narrator’s mother, played by Alison Oliver, is appropriately to the fore. Her siblings – Justine Mitchell, Louisa Harland, and Bláithín Mac Gabhann – are excellent. These are restrained women, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, which makes any escapism potent. Feel free to pick your favourite although it is hard not to highlight Siobhán McSweeney’s comedy skills as the fifth sister. Her character is described as “light-hearted”, but it is the moments when her smile slips that are most powerful.

There is much unsaid in Dancing at Lughnasa, with plenty of the communication being non-verbal. It turns out that the summer of 1936 was the last time that the family were all together (typically, we don’t see this dramatic split). Is it the time or the memory that comes to be described as “alluring and mesmeric”? Either way, those are responses that the audience comes to share with the narrator. As with time lost and memories themselves, the play lingers in the mind.

Until 27 May 2023

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Dixon and Daughters” at the National Theatre

Theatre doesn’t get harder hitting than this. Director Róisín McBrinn and playwright Deborah Bruce have worked with the show’s co-producer Clean Break, a women’s theatre company that focuses on the criminal justice system. As a story of how that system impacts on traumatised lives, Dixon and Daughters is intense, provocative and powerful.

The insights gained from in-depth research have led to a script with unquestionable authenticity – which doesn’t make Dixon and Daughters easy to watch. No fewer than six women, five from the same family, show the complexity of abuse. What has happened to them isn’t easy to think about, let alone watch. Bruce charts how past events have shaped lives and endanger futures.

Exploring reactions to abuse proves profound. First, there is denial – we meet Mary, the mother of the family, on her return from prison, incarcerated for perverting the course of justice in a case against her husband. Bríd Brennan’s performance in the role is flawless, with plenty of twisted logic and perverse outrage convincingly depicted. When Mary confronts the truth, Brennan gives a raw performance that is painful to see.

Mary’s daughters Julie and Bernie (further excellent performances from Andrea Lowe and Liz White, respectively) share some of this wish for silence, but their trauma is clearer to see. Julie has become an alcoholic in another abusive relationship. Bernie focuses on her daughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani), who has her own story to tell about the pervasiveness of male power.

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Posy Sterling with Bríd Brennan, Liz White and Andrea Lowe in the background

Ella is joined by a woman called Leigh, who Mary met in prison. This extremely damaged character is vividly portrayed by Posy Sterling – she is frightening and heart-rending. And (of course) Leigh is a victim of abuse herself. In this substitute daughter for Mary, Bruce balances frustration and compassion, which serves as an example of how complex the relationships in her play are.

“Make peace or make trouble”

Mary, Julie, and Bernie juggle with the decision to “make peace or make trouble”, with fear leading to damaging decisions. It’s easy to judge, but the drama gives us a chance to stop and question. It is Mary’s stepdaughter, Briana, who has proved the father’s nemesis – her actions led to the court case that imprisoned Mary. Briana’s self-care, mantras and all, make the character jar – at first. But with the aid of Alison Fitzjohn’s charismatic performance, she becomes an inspirational figure who helps herself and others.

There is a danger that each character in the play represents a response to issues, but this potential flaw is avoided through surprising humour and the strong performances. A motif of the house itself being a witness to events fails to convince or make the most of Kat Heath’s ambitious set – the idea feels tacked on. And it must be admitted that, dramatically, there are alarms but no surprises in Dixon and Daughters – the play is depressingly predictable. Nonetheless, by broadening her concern to misogyny Bruce highlights the systemic and cruel nature of male power with incredible authority.

Until 10 June 2023

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photos by Helen Murray

“Phaedra” at the National Theatre

This new play is inspired by works from Euripides, Seneca and Racine, but director and writer Simon Stone’s ambition is to present a story for our times. Brimming with contemporary concerns, in an arguably self-conscious fashion, this production is superbly performed and perfectly stylish.

First up, there’s privilege. For Phaedra we have Helen, a successful and wealthy politician full of charisma and undoubtedly powerful. It’s a change to the source material that makes sense and, taking the title role, Janet McTeer has a regal quality. You can picture the admiration, and envy, of those around her.

The family Helen dominates is Stone’s idea of the liberal elite – oh-so erudite and out of touch. The dinner table has conflict and quotes – Helen’s son, daughter and husband are full of wit and neurosis. Their chat is funny, but it might be hard to relate to this family, especially given Chloe Lamford’s design.

The set is a glass box (remember Yerma?) but, here, it rotates. The sense of voyeurism engendered is intense. It’s with the sound design that the eye-catching idea comes into its own – characters can talk over one another and speak at volumes not normally possible on stage.

Into the mix comes Sofiane, the son of Helen’s long-deceased lover. Everyone’s lives start to get messy (do they have real problems for a change?).  While Assaad Bouab has great presence in the role, bringing a magnetism to match McTeer, I’m not sure his character is really the ‘enigma’ the play claims. Open about motivations and desires, Sofiane is also very clearly a vehicle for the topic of colonialism.

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Sirine Saba and Assaad Bouab

Intersecting with Helen’s privilege, voiceovers from Sofiane’s father (that fill in scene changes) are fantastic. But if the intention was to give the colonised experience a voice, then more is needed. Thankfully, the final scenes in Morocco are excellent and there’s a starring role for Sofiane’s wife. Also good is the fascinating role for Helen’s friend and colleague Omolara – a brilliant Akiya Henry – who roots the play by being removed from the heady action.

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Akiya Henry

When it comes to the passion Phaedra is famous for, whether it convinces a modern audience is an open question. Nowadays, we have a short list of taboos – would Helen’s actions really have ended her career? More interestingly, there is an engagement with the theme of compromise in the play that is appropriate in our polarised times.

The lust Helen experiences leads to great drama – this show is exciting. Framing selfish actions as a protest against ageism and misogyny is a confrontational strategy. But is the finale surprisingly conservative? As in his source material, the woman must be punished. And, in the end, for all its qualities, that makes Phaedra feel old-fashioned.

Until 8 April 2023

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk