THE announcement of Deborah Warner’s appointment as new artistic director of Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio came just weeks before COVID-19 swept across the world.
The growing band of fans of the venue, in which Laurence Boswell created exciting and memorable work during his tenure, just had to wait. What would Warner bring to the city? How would even such a celebrated director follow such a hard act as Boswell?
Now we know, and the sigh of relief is accompanied by the electrifying experience of her first two offerings – The Tempest in the main house and now the brilliantly-conceived double bill of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Phaedre and a new dance work by Kim Brandstrup that further unravels the complicated family tree of those ancient Greek gods and their (sometimes) human partners.
Cretan princess Phaedra, who we meet in the first part of the programme, is a daughter of Minos and Pasiphae and sister of Ariadne (among many others). She is also half-sister of the Minotaur, the product of the union of a bull with Pasiphae, cursed by Aphrodite for lack of due attention!
On the eve of her marriage her marriage to Theseus, Phaedra catches sight of her soon-to-be stepson Hippolytus and falls passionately in love with him. When he rejects her advances she accuses him of rape. Theseus prays for his son’s death. Phaedra, appalled by what is happening, takes poison.
Christine Rice sings this late Britten work, composed for Janet Baker in 1976, with an intensity that imprisons the audience in the intimate space. She literally makes your heart beat faster, even if the convolution of the story escapes you. It is a magnificent performance of a searingly compelling work.
After the stage is re-set, the audience is reunited with the daughters of Minos, with Phaedra’s sister, Ariadne, the Minotaur (who appears only as a fleeting shadow in Warner’s version of the cantata) and Theseus – although none of the characters are named in Brandstrup’s piece. Laurel Dalley Smith, a native of Bath who made her Theatre Royal debut at the age of nine, returns home from New York, where she dances with the Martha Graham Dance Company, to create the female role. She is joined by Jonathan Goddard, known for his work with Rambert and with the Mark Bruce Company in Frome, brings his erotically-charged intensity to the Theseus role, and Tommy Franzen, as astonishing as a dancing gymnast as he is a rock-climber, turns the Minotaur into a tender, imprisoned beast while also suggesting the freedom that the god Dionysus brings to the abandoned Ariadne.
It is astonishing how much tenderness seeped through the passion, fury and cold cruelty of this piece, which owes a rich debt to Pina Bausch.
The double-bill is at the Ustinov until 23rd August. The sort of event audiences are more accustomed to seeing at festivals, it’s a mouth- watering introduction to Warner’s reign at the Ustinov.