Isabelle Huppert’s return to the London stage is welcome, but it comes in an impenetrable indulgence by Polish director Krystof Warlikowski. First seen at the Odéon Théàtre de l’Europe in Paris, and now playing at the Barbican Centre and headlining the London International Festival of Theatre, “Phaedra(s)” strings together a triptych of takes, direct and indirect, on the ill-fated Ancient Greek queen. For each, Huppert shapeshifts entirely — a hydra of Phaedras — but to little cumulative effect. Too little, certainly, for almost four hours of static inaction.
Rather than a dramaturgical smash-and-grab, welding elements of each version into a mash-up of the myth, Warlikowski lines up three “versions” of the Phaedra myth in a row: Wajdi Mouawad’s kaleidoscopic reflection, Sarah Kane’s scatological revision and, loosest by far, J.M. Coetzee’s novella “Elizabeth Costello.” Played back to back, they’re neither varied enough to make a comprehensive character study, nor connected enough to make a particular case.
On a gold-gilt stage, tiled like a luxury shower room and shimmering like a sarcophagus, Warlikowski plays out a theatrical experiment. Metal swinging doors suggest an institution; huge glass windows, an observation chamber. At one level, the trio testifies simply to the malleability of myths. At another, they add up to an examination of older women — Phaedra in relation to her younger stepson and lover Hippolytus. Another still says something indistinct about the godliness of humanity.
Mouawad spins Euripedes and Seneca through a process of fractional distillation, splitting the story of Aphrodite’s embodiment as Phaedra into different traits — the beauty of Phaedra’s femininity; the cruelty of her killing a dog; the purity, even innocence, of her sexual relationship with her stepson; the reality that follows. Kane’s is baser, grossly human, as a frail Phaedra, abandoned by her husband, lusts over her slob of a stepson as the “Psycho” shower scene recurs on loop. He, meanwhile, prefers his skinny supermodel-esque half-sister, Strophe — as does his returning father Theseus.
Finally, Coetzee’s academic, Elizabeth Costello, completes the set: framed as a kind of Phaedra, perhaps an older woman belittled. In a chatty lecture discussion format, she rattles through ideas about why gods might copulate with humans in literature, about our own godliness and our own humanity, all the while patronized and flirted at by the male chair. Between each section, a young woman in a spangled two-piece dances herself into a hypnotic frenzy, stopping the action and holding the attention absolutely.
For each, Huppert completely reinvents herself, disappearing into character while the dancer stands present as herself, in her own body. Huppert’s blonde earth-mama gives way to an auburn-haired trophy wife, spindle thin beneath enormous sunglasses, and then again to a bedraggled brunette academic, outwardly plain but whip-sharp. It’s a fine display of shapeshifting, each Phaedra quite unrecognizable as the same woman, though, until the Coetzee, her delivery tends to the emphatic.
Yet it’s never remotely clear what Warlikowski’s up to — why Phaedra merits our attention in the modern world, let alone why these three Phaedras should be studied. Rather than add up, the pieces cancel each other out. Sandwiched between two reflective pieces, Kane’s punkish revision looks like so much juvenilia, while its partners seem hazy and pretentious. The pace is interminable, the length inordinate and the insights are insignificant by comparison. “Phaedra,” singular, would have been plenty.