Phaedra’s Love: A Difficult Play

ben irvine & carolyn thomas/ photo by ashley marie pike

I really like that a theatre like Taboo is willing to bring the work of a playwright like Sarah Kane to Halifax and their production of her Phaedra’s Love is certainly an ambitious one that will challenge the all the artists involved and really force them to grow in exciting and interesting ways. This is always terrific to see.

The biggest hurdle for this production is its inconsistent cast. Director Stephanie Kincaid has assembled mostly emerging artists and given them one hell of a difficult play to sink their teeth into, which means that a lot of this play works on the very surface of Kane’s narrative but doesn’t delve deep enough into these characters to elevate it beyond a blood bath of gore and awkward sex scenes.

Phaedra’s Love is based on the play Phaedra by Roman playwright Seneca the Younger (4 BC- 65 AD), which tells the myth of Phaedra who falls in love with her women-loathing stepson Hippolytus and sets off a chain of death in her family. British playwright Sarah Kane, known for her gruesome works including her play Blasted (1995), contemporized Phaedra’s Love (1996) and set it in modern day England. The first scene in the play is beautifully crafted and perfectly captures the ambiance of a Sarah Kane play. Hippolytus sits in the squalor of his bedroom jerking off while eating a Big Mac. Blackout.

Ben Irvine plays chronically lazy, woefully spoiled Hippolytus whose position of prestige has been greeted by a deep rooted cynicism, a complete lack of care or empathy and an almost psychopathic emotional distance that keeps him miserable and stagnant throughout most of the play. Irvine is the anchor of this production. His portrayal of this deeply flawed individual is seamless and he manages to make Hippolytus simultaneously disgusting, fascinating and pervasively enticing. Carolyn Thomas’ Phaedra is the opposite extreme. She isn’t grounded in anything real and she doesn’t have a distinct personality or a clear sense of the Queen’s motivation, status or stakes. This made me immediately align myself with Hippolytus and not care about what happened to Phaedra at all, which was counterproductive to the balance of the play.

What makes Phaedra’s Love so interesting to me is the chance to really humanize these mythic characters and that requires great depth and complexity to really resonate onstage. It also is clear that Kane is mirroring this dysfunctional family with the Royal Family of England, one that also featured a [soon to be] step mother and a young son. If you look at all the people in the Royal Family, who Kane doubtlessly would have been familiar with and scornful of, they are filled with lying, deceitful, complex layers of facade, propriety and honour, rules about which emotions to conceal and how to project the proper ones even if they were entirely fake.

Sarah Kane referred to Phaedra’s Love as “my comedy,” which I am sure was a bit tongue in cheek given what I know about Kane’s attitude and her life. Yet, in some way she is entirely correct since so much of the absurdity and the horrific violence in this play become funny when they are taken to the extreme. That being said, I think that most of what is really disturbing about this play and what resonates the strongest and incites the strongest emotional and intellectual response and debate for the audience is in the subtext. There isn’t a lot of subtext in this production.

I don’t want to sound like I’m discouraging emerging artists from doing difficult work. I think that the more this cast is given the opportunity to throw themselves into intense plays the more they will all hone their crafts, learn from their mistakes and improve on their successes. I hope that Taboo Theatre continues to produce difficult projects and to keep delving deeper and darker and to never dampen their zealous and enterprising spirit, which makes even an inconsistent show a fun and promising one. I would also encourage Stephanie Kincaid to perhaps seek out a fight choreographer for her next production; it tends to help with keeping the mounting tension steady, the escalating speed, as well as an overall polish and clearer sightlines for audiences toward the back of the theatre. They also tend to be fantastic teachers for young directors to learn from.

Phaedra’s Love plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street, Halifax) until May 13th. Both May 12 and May 13 have shows at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $15.00 for matinees, $20.00 for evening shows ($15.00 for artists and students). For more information please visit this website and to book your tickets please email

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