The second play by Sarah Kane
, coming in 1996, a year after her shocking debut Blasted
; and confirming that she intended to continue horrifying
audiences and critics as well as providing powerful, biting, depressive language and black humour
It's a retelling of the classic story of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, who falls hopelessly in love with her stepson, the virtuous Hippolytus -- virtuous in the original. When he spurns her advances, she kills herself, accusing him of raping her, and Theseus seeks revenge on his son.
Sarah Kane's version preserves most of the story, but updates it to the present day, and her Hippolytus is utterly disgusting: a spoilt, fat, callous, masturbating, cynical slob. He sits in bed all day watching television, stuffing himself with hamburgers, and blowing his nose on any socks he can find on the floor that he hasn't come in.
Despite this, perhaps partly because of it, Phaedra is obsessed. He taunts her with how easy it is for him to have sex with anyone he wants, but he doesn't seem to want her. Phaedra goes down on him, which he receives with sublime indifference, then tells her to see the doctor, as he has gonorrhoea. Still she refuses to hate him. She compares him to his father. Hippolytus remarks that that's funny, that's what Strophe (her daughter) said.
Hippolytus was bored. He hated the inanity of his life, the fawning of the commoners who saw the Royal Family as something noble, and the idiocy of their attempts to show homage to him on his royal birthday while the world burns. When Phaedra hangs herself, leaving her accusation, for once a spark of interest enters his life. Against the urgings of Strophe, who wants to help him if he is innocent, he looks forward to being seen as a rapist, a destroyer of the peace of their country.
He is put in prison awaiting trial, but outside the mobs are baying for his blood now. A priest comes in and tries to get him to confess his sins or reconcile himself to his end. Hippolytus points out there is no God, and if there were he'd be a pretty stupid one who was taken in by a last-minute conversion, so he wants no part of that. In a startlingly unexpected (and perhaps even unjustified) scene, the priest suddenly performs oral sex on him. Well, this is Sarah Kane.
Then things get nasty. The final scene involves lynching, more rape, more incest, throat-slitting, castration, disembowelling, a barbecue, and the final stage direction:
A vulture descends and begins to eat his body.
Phaedra's Love premiered at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill in London on 15th May 1996, directed by the playwright, starring Cas Harkins as Hippolytus, Philippa Williams as Phaedra, Catherine Cusack as Strophe, and Andrew Maud as the Doctor, the Priest, and Theseus. Members of the lynch mob were played by actors cunningly hidden in the audience until the last moment, including, and I swear this is true for the night I was there, Dame Diana Rigg. The set was wide open and the action went all through the audience, making us at times distressingly close to the bloodshed, erratic toy cars, and flying pieces of severed flesh.