Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Phaedra’s Love / Crave

Castaway Community Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , March 31, 2004
“Vultures,” the dying Prince Hippolytus (Peter Reilly) names the gawking, crazed choral throng in the nearly-final words of Phaedra’s Love, perhaps Sarah Kane’s best and most powerful play. Under the veneer of their self-righteous fury, they feed vicariously on the catastrophes of the House of Theseus. Kane’s update of the Euripidean tragedy updated by Racine and repeatedly revived by the fin-de-siecle diva Sarah Bernhardt is an urgent, original work. In it, Kane incisively examines the ‘tragic’ spectacle of the earlier versions and sadistic voyeurism that approach enabled.

David Blumfield’s starkly unsentimental, almost dark-comic staging for Castaway Theatre Company, at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre through 31 March, explores Kane’s difficult themes without a hint of preachiness. Hippolytus, his stepsister Strophe, and the confused, tortured and torturing Phaedra are played with cold intensity by Peter Reilly, Kate Spivey, and Claire N. Jones, respectively. The final scene is riveting and sickening because the ensemble cast work together well and are always in the moment and in character.
Blumfield’s decision to pair Phaedra’s Love with Kane’s Crave, with the latter play first, is an inspired decision. Crave concerns a private if schizophrenic, apparently self-consciously autobiographical mindspace, while Phaedra’s Love shows the family and the public to feed, voyeuristically enjoy, and outdo the psychoses dignosed in the individual.

Since Kane’s suicide, it has perhaps become easy to agree with her earliest critics that the demons we see in her theatre are merely the demons in her head. In Phaedra’s Love, and, more subtly, Crave, Kane argues that there are demons in her head at least in part because they are in our cities, families, and institutions. She considers why the ‘chorus’ might need to tell her that they’re all in her head, and to what lengths they will go to impose that idea upon her and themselves. In Castaway’s interpretation, this is emphasised by a set suggesting a contour drawing of a human brain from inside.

Designed by Duncan Gough, with assistance by Steph Renshaw, it is built out of corrugated plastic tubing. It surrounds the characters and the space like a trap.
In Crave, Kane prophetically challenges her legacy as a poet of perpetual bleakness, claiming her creativity is driven by the life instinct as well as the opposite. “I have a black, black side, I know,” one of Crave’s voices protests, then adds: “I have a green side you’ll never know.”

Watching Crave (or 4:48 Psychosis) with retrospective awareness of the author’s suicide turns theatregoers into the vultures of Phaedra’s Love, greedily circling the dead from a high, remote point with a very clear view.
Both plays have many great lines: caustically witty, terribly true, always self-contradictory.

Kane has a sharper command of paradox and conundrum than any playwright writing in my lifetime, to my knowledge. “God may be all-powerful, but he can’t make me good,” Hippolytus informs the priest who wants him to ask for absolution for Phaedra’s rape and death. “Free will is what distinguishes humans from animals. I have no intention of behaving like a fucking animal.”

One beautiful monologue in Crave makes for a gaping contrast with the screams from depths that comprise the rest of both plays—and the currently pervasive image of Kane’s aesthetic. Enchantingly delivered by Jim Finnis, this is an incantation of mundane, caring and joyful expressions of love. Its increasingly desperate tone is ultimately explained by the revelation that the beloved intends to leave, and the speaker is trying to give her reasons not to. This is a completely unpretentious piece of magical reality.

I have been amazed by and obsessed with Kane’s plays since the appearance of Blasted a decade ago. I clearly recall where I was when I was told she had died. Another person in the room at the time, someone involved in the study of drama, told the bringer of the bad news not to mention Kane, whose plays are ‘horrible’. I was as shocked and horrified by the intensity of that exclamation as by the news itself. This week at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Castaway demonstrates why Kane’s writing can arouse such feelings, and exactly why it is necessary and even beautiful for us to explore rather than silence them—and her drama.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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