Reimagining Hippolytus Veiled, Euripides’ challenging Greek Tragedy about a woman who pursed her desires relentlessly, was not always easy for award-winning Kiwi playwright Nathan Joe.
While Hippolytus is well-known and has been adapted countless times, Hippolytus Veiled – an earlier version of the play – was lost with only fragments remaining.
This is Greek Tragedy at its best – presenting audiences with a script which is as poetic as it is provocative. It’s a challenging and often claustrophobic 90 minutes which is driven by complex characters who spend as much time battling their inner demons as they do each other, and allows audiences to engage in an emotional catharsis while watching these morally reprehensible figures explore the extremities of love, lust, morality, and sexual politics.
The play begins in Athens where we find Queen Phaedra (Fiona Mogridge), a woman who has been left alone and abandoned for many years by her husband, King Theseus (Geoff Allen).
Overcome with a fever and largely bedridden, Phaedra is stirred into action after falling madly and desperately in love with her stepson, the haughty and misogynistic Hippolytus (Paul Trimmer) – tragedy is inevitable.
Nathan Joe has certainly pulled off quite a feat in delivering us his reinterpretation of this play. The playwright refused to blink in the face of his challenging subject matter and resisted the urge to water it down to appease theatre-goers. I certainly appreciated his efforts to ensure a balance between maintaining the poeticism of the original play, with the need to deliver a script that was relevant and accessible.
While some adaptions of Greek theatre have chosen to view their subject matter through a modern – and often critical – lens, Joe succeeds by refusing to blame or shame his admittedly reprehensible characters (or their actions) through his reinterpretation.
Instead, his beautifully rendered script presents its characters for what they are – flawed, calculating, and often selfish human beings whose actions are influenced by the eternal conflict between primal urges and shame.
The actors, under the skilled direction of Patrick Graham, seemed to relish the plays salacious material and complex characters. While the cast worked wonderfully as a whole, Fiona Mogridge is the standout as Phaedra, a woman haunted by unfulfilled desires and an all-consuming lust. Mogridge is no one-note performer and instead effortlessly captured the full spectrum of Phaedra’s madness, longing, and frustration – all while imbuing the character with a regal air befitting someone of her status.
Likewise, Jacqui Whall was great as the scene-stealing nurse, shifting between sensitivity and calculating malice with ease. Whall’s interplay with Paul Trimmer’s Hippolytus was a joy to watch, elevating an already excellent script.
For his part, Paul Trimmer was excellently cast as Hippolytus, the subject of Phaedra’s affections. Hippolytus is a difficult character to warm up to – he’s misogynistic, conceited, and at times petulant. However, through Trimmer’s inviting performance (which also doesn’t shy away from embracing Hippolytus’ more ugly traits), he was also a character who could the audience could empathize with, pity, and understand (in between reviling). Hippolytus arguably underdoes the most intense emotional journey throughout the 90 minutes – he’s a character whose moral compass is assaulted at every turn, and Trimmer handles this challenging task with aplomb.
Geoff Allen’s turn as the vain and crude King Theseus was a welcome one – he made some bold choices in his depiction of a man torn between the shocking claims of his wife and sharp objections of his son. Allen’s performance was commanding and self-assured, while still being impressively nuanced and measured – a perfect illustration of what a skilled actor can do with a well-written character.
Closing out the cast was Mark Oughton’s servant. Though his appearance was confined to the closing scenes of the play, his plea to the King for justice for his master Hippolytus was both passionate and captivating and made my hair stand on end.
I must also reserve some praise for Rose Mulcare’s eye-catching set, which saw the actors perform in the narrow corridor of the Basement Theatre’s upper floor, flanked by an audience on either side. The set which was awash with stark whites, dark reds, and shimmering gold, and perfectly complimented Zach Howell’s lighting design.
Hippolytus Veiled is a play which has a lot going for it. The production manages to present the essential elements of Greek tragedy in a manner which is fresh and accessible for modern audiences. It’s sharply-written and well-acted, and presents audiences with an unapologetic exploration of the lengths that people will go to, to fulfil their darkest desires, all the while exposing the eternal and primal struggle conflict between shame and lust. At its most basic, Hippolytus Veiled offers audiences something special – an opportunity to watch bad people do bad things so that you don’t have to.