Edwin Morgan's modern Scots version of Cyrano de Bergerac, as staged by Communicado, was one of the undoubted highlights of my Edinburgh Festival and Fringe theatregoing of the 1990s. Now he has brought the same marriage of rough Caledonian phonemes and a soaring poetic heart to the greatest French tragedy of them all, Racine's Phèdre. Where the Penguin Modern Classics version renders Hippolytus's opening lines into pentameter as "It is resolved, Theramenes. I go;/I will depart from Troezen's pleasant land", Morgan – while preserving Racine's hexameters – leaps in with "Nae merr pussyfootin. Ah'm aff, Theramenes;/Troezen's awright as toons go, but Ah canny stey."
This is far more than mere novelty; it cuts to the quick of the distress which Phaedra feels in her love for her stepson Hippolytus, and his in turn for family enemy Aricia. When Gerda Stevenson's fevered, frenzied Phaedra declares herself "radge, radge in love", it is a world away from Irvine Welshian modishness; her rhapsody upon how she would have been entranced if only the young Hippolytus had landed with his father Theseus's party on Crete to best the Minotaur is a passage of granite beauty. When Pauline Turner's Aricia – more controlled, but no less lovestruck – speaks of the qualities of her hard-hearted beloved, Morgan sums it up elegantly in the phrase "Gie me an armoured soul".
The delirium of Stevenson's Phaedra stands against Martin Ledwith's Hippolytus, a young man who knows that his youthful railing has been overtaken by the power of Venus but still tries to find a morally decent route through the labyrinth. David Rintoul's Theseus – who, having been presumed dead, returns to find his wife running mad for reasons which cannot be disclosed to him until too late – is indeed "fell and dour", a martial man out of his depth amid these events.
Kenny Ireland's strong, sensitive direction is played out upon a set by Isla Shaw which reinvents the Lyceum's interior. A fragmented, stepped oval playing area has been directed over the stalls, with the audience seated in the galleries and on what is usually the stage. It looks beautiful, and gives simply yet eloquent visual form to the splintered, ill-fitting emotions and proprieties of the characters, but it does tend to bow and bounce a little when anyone passes over it with a heavy tread. Overall, though, this is a starkly ravishing piece of work.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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