Euripides' Hippolytus
Translated and directed by Lloyd Arnett

March 10-12 and 17-19, 1994

Freedom Hall
Trinity Western University
Langley, B.C.

Reviewed by C.W. Marshall
Department of Classics
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC

As the lights come up, a guy in a t-shirt appears and relates the story of Euripides' life. The emphasis is that nothing is known for certain. His parents were 'small-time merchants' (missing Aristophanes' joke) and he was 'an ordained priest of Zeus' (misleading). Also, Euripides may or may not have been a misogynist, as the play we are about to see demonstrates. The purpose is to provide the audience with a touchstone, but effect is distancing: do not judge this play as you would a normal play, for it is old. The monologist leaves and the play proper begins.

The production is capable and at times has some nice effects. When Hippolytus (Chris Coon) and his hunters appear, testosterone covers the stage, and provides a visible contrast to the six-woman, half-masked, urn-bearing chorus which enters with hesitant and stylized grace. A pair of castanets clink, and six voices, all neutral, speak the parodos. The effect is calming, so it is hard to believe 'our emotional discord is strong with passion'.

Grant Gladish as the messenger uses the full stage and effectively employs a whip to explain Hippolytus' equestrian accomplishments when the bull appears. From time to time, ocean sounds are heard over the loudspeaker which convey the immediacy of Poseidon's presence, and of the realization of the curse. When Hipploytus dies, there is a genuine silence.

The audience could probably have done without the pink fletching on Artemis' arrows, and while John Trottier as Theseus was certainly the most comfortable on stage, he was too big for the set, and did not realize it. The relatively small stage tried to evoke Greek features, but to fit the ramps and steps in, everything had to be quite small. The two vaguely female faces that were the images of the goddesses remained anonymous, and clashed with the pink- and-grey pastel-spattered set and chorus masks.

The most moving moment was the initial appearance of Phaedra (Renee Leveille). Casting Phaedra involves a decision - is she closer in age to Theseus than Hippolytus, or is she very young? Most times I have seen the play with a Phaedra in her thirties, lusting aggressively after her younger and virile stepson. I prefer a younger stepmother, a peer to Hippolytus whose goddess-inspired love makes more visual sense to the audience than does her relationship with Theseus. Phaedra here appears in her early twenties; her agitated movements and groans are feral, and the sense of passion unnatural was clear.

Unfortunately, this was soon lost to the routine of performance. Throughout, the play seemed under-directed, in that once an effect was achieved it was abandoned, yielding generally static performances. Characters including the chorus do not react to important news. Hippolytus gets angry at Theseus way too early. When time holds a mirror, Phaedra rustles one up to hold as well, rather than taking a cue for the line from a prop already evident. Occasionally, the translation faltered, especially for the chorus: '...that there a god might recreate me as a winged member of his flocks' was spoken without comprehension, 'if your problem is of a kind humiliating to our sex...' without pity.

The production falls into a key trap of modern presentations of tragedies, which is the updating of morality. When Hippolytus dies in this production, there is an overwhelming sense of him being wronged by the gods, that an innocent has suffered cruelly the vicissitudes of fate. Absent is any feeling that he in fact himself is guilty of a greater offence against the gods. This means we can identify with Hippolytus, and sympathize for him. There are no conflicting moralities to trouble the modern viewer. It is safer this way, and not wholly wrong, perhaps. This is often the result when modern notions of 'tragedy' (little girl caught in well) blend over into productions of plays from antiquity.

C. W. Marshall

C.W. Marshall balances his teaching load with improv comedy.