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Sheila Gish talks about her role as Phaedra at Riverside Studios

Published April 17, 2008

Studios she tackles one of the pinnacles of classical tragedy, the title role in Jean Racine's 1677 play Phaedra in which overwhelming passion and anguished love lead to her death. Here she talks about the role in the first production from a new company offering innovative productions of classical repertoire and starring established performers alongside promising newcomers.

“Phaedra is one of the great roles – dramatic actresses from Rachel in the 1840s and Sarah Bernhardt in the 1870s have all done it. She has an all-consuming passion for her stepson Hippolytus which she believes was inflicted upon her by Venus. This becomes jealousy when she learns that he loves another and then her already terrible situation is exacerbated by guilt when she learns of Hippolytus’s death by a sea monster. It is a difficult part because it is not quite a full-blood-let-rip sort of role such as Clytemnestra.

"Phaedra is essentially a good woman who has fallen foul of her hormones (or of Venus depending on which way you want to look at it.) She verges on an appalling affliction which verges on paedophilia – after all the boy was very young. But as a character her honesty appeals to me together with her sense of duty and honour. When she poisons herself she is preparing to die not for what she has done but for what she feels. She does not die out of a sense of shame. Like Princess Diana she is in a marriage of state and she falls in love desperately for the first time in her life.

"As well as the raw emotions of the story the language is wonderful. Racine is a spare and blisteringly honest writer unlike his contemporary Corneille who is much more flowery. My French is poor but I did have the French with me which is so useful for punctuation and emphasis. While our translation by John Cairncross sticks faithfully to the spirit of the original – and that is wonderful – the original French is sublime and very concise. When performing it I think it is absolutely imperative that the metre and rhythms of the text are so that the narrative is crystal clear to an audience. If you see the technique it hasn’t worked. It has to be seamless.

"I have done lots of these highly dramatic classical roles and doing them helps to hone your craft. Ever since I first encountered Tennessee Williams – and there are bits of Blanche DuBois in Phaedra – I realised I have a knack of playing people with fatal flaws. But I must say that after performances I do feel pretty drained!".

If you would like to see the Concentric Circles production of Phaedra which runs until March 9 at the Riverside Studios please call the Box Office on 020 8237 1111.

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