Festival Review: Phaedra/Minotaur

Madeleine Sutton reviews Phaedra/Minotaur at the Edinburgh International Festival.

IN THIS production of Phaedra/Minotaur – which pairs Benjamin Britten’s final poignant cantata Phaedra, with the moving new dance piece Minotaur – opera and theatre director Deborah Warner and choreographer Kim Brandstrup take us through themes of passion, female desire, and devastation.

Phaedra, based on Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine, comes first. The opening ominous low notes on piano immediately thrust the audience into Phaedra’s despair, even before Olivier Award-nominated mezzo soprano Christina Rice has opened her mouth. And when she does, Rice compellingly leads us through all the octaves and emotions of Phaedra’s forbidden love for her stepson Hippolytus. Despite greek mythology’s synonymity with epic themes and enormous emotions, for Phaedra’s half, Warner and McDonald’s staging, props and costumes are all understated. Simply a black floor, a white background, a piano, white sheets and a chair with shoes on it. But it needn’t have anything else. From creeping by the Steinway to crazily clutching onto her hair, Rice grippingly portrays the misery and despair she feels for loving Hippolytus. Hetherington skillfully accompanies Rice through Pheadra’s distress, and together they command the audience’s uninterrupted attention.

After an interval and set change, which I wish had been shorter or perhaps more discreet,  we are thrust into the world of Phaedra’s sister Ariadne and her betrayal by Theseus after saving him from the Minotaur. Minotaur is choreographed by Kim Brandstrup and told through a tremendous trio of dancers: Isabel Lubach, Tommy Franzen, and Jonathan Goddard. The story is separated into themes; combat, seduction, departure, lament and finally deus ex machina (a contrived solution). Against a blood-stained climbing wall back drop, we are led through the build up and break down of Theseus and Ariadne’s relationship.  The movement departure is delicately devastating, as we see Goddard’s beautifully brutal Theseus continuously attempt to desert Ariadne. He heartbreakingly succeeds. Enter Franzen as – who I presume – is now Dionysus. With athletic and elegant agility, he manoeuvres his way across the blood-stained climbing wall above a deflated Ariadne abandoned on Naxos. Together they share a final dance that is both passionate and poignant. Eilon Morris’ music moves and matches the changing emotions of the dancers extremely well.

Incredible skill is evident from the outset and throughout this double bill of Greek mythology. As I write this now, my thoughts seem to return over and over to the striking image of Franzen scaling the climbing wall and I can’t say that I mind.

Find out more about the show at https://www.eif.co.uk/events/phaedra-minotaur

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