Review: PHAEDRA/MINOTAUR, Theatre Royal Bath

Deborah Warner's opera and dance double-bill dazzles audiences

By: Aug. 18, 2022
Review: PHAEDRA/MINOTAUR, Theatre Royal Bath
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Review: PHAEDRA/MINOTAUR, Theatre Royal Bath They say good things come in small packages. This adage certainly applies to Theatre Royal Bath's larger-than-life double bill of Benjamin Britten's Phaedra and newly commissioned ballet, Minotaur, in the diminutive Ustinov Studio.

Artistic director Deborah Warner's decision to marry her pared-down version of Phaedra - first performed at the Royal Opera House in 2020 with full orchestra, now with piano - to Brandstrup's new dance piece makes for a captivating evening.

Warner's wondrous Phaedra is in a simple setting by designer Antony McDonald, with superb lighting by Jean Kalman that casts evocative shadows on screens. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice in the title role gives us a visceral and despairing heroine who falls madly in love with her step-son, Hippolytus, on the day of her wedding to his father, Theseus. It doesn't end well, of course (spoiler alert), with Phaedra taking her own life.

Rice sings at resonant Royal Opera House volume, filling the modest 126-seat auditorium, displaying a variety of bold emotions from love, lust and longing to guilt, despair and shame. Rice is excellent as a passionate and agonised Phaedra, admirably accompanied by pianist and Ustinov director of music Richard Hetherington.

Britten is a bit like Marmite ­­- you either love him or hate him ­- but this rendering of the cantata originally sung by Dame Janet Baker at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1976 is so mesmerising even Britten's detractors will connect with its intensity.

The second half of the evening carries the Greek mythology storytelling further through dance, with Ariadne (Laurel Dalley Smith, born in Bath and now a member of The Martha Graham Dance Company in New York) guarding the gate to the labyrinth and helping Theseus in his quest to slay the Minotaur. Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, who abandons her to marry Phaedra.

In a thrilling and highly original ballet, Brandstrup's layered interpretation explores Ariadne's feelings for her half-brother and conveys the Minotaur as a wronged protagonist. All three compelling and authoritative dancers in the cast - including Jonathan Goddard and Tommy Franzen, who should both be commended for their dazzling moves - create breath-taking shapes and forms, to the delight of the audience. Franzen, who's also an avid rock climber, executes audacious gravity-defying positions on an indoor climbing wall - something you don't normally expect to see in a ballet.

Not surprisingly, most of the tickets have sold already for the run of this remarkable production that punches well above its weight. But do get on a train and come to Bath if you manage to get hold of return tickets - and be grateful for small blessings.

Phaedra and Minotaur is at Theatre Royal Bath until 23 August

Photo Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou