By Simon Critchley
Last Saturday, September 17th 2016, thanks to the support of the Onassis Foundation, I was lucky enough to have a long public conversation onstage at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) with the great French actor, Isabelle Huppert. We were meant to talk about the BAM production of ‘Phaedra(s)’ in which she was starring as ill-starred Cretan queen who is consumed with illicit incestuous desire for her stepson, Hippolytus. Both of them are destroyed in the process. I had seen the production a couple of days earlier and had been completely blown away by the unremitting force of the play and deeply impressed by the staging and especially the performance of Isabelle Huppert.
What gave this production its unique power was the way in which it counterpointed the many different and seemingly contradictory treatments of the story of Phaedra that one can find in the ancient Greek Euripides, the Roman Seneca, the French neo-classical Racine and, most recently, the very English Sarah Kane. It didn’t try to unify these different versions of Phaedra or blend them together into some syncretic whole. Rather, Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s stunning production of the play placed those versions alongside each other - hence the plural ‘Phaedra(s)’ - in an uneasy but captivating tension and conjunction which drew in the spectator. New theatrical elements were added with dialogue adapted from Wajdi Mouawad and J.M. Coetzee. Isabelle Huppert appeared as at least three different Phaedras, as the Australian writer Elizabeth Costello, and even as the goddess Aphrodite, who seemed to have been fused with the intoxicating god of ancient tragedy: Dionysos. She was onstage pretty much constantly for more than three hours.
Anyhow, Isabelle Huppert and I talked and I tried, with some trepidation and limited success, to get her to address the ideas in the play: desire, love, incest, violence, and the relation between gods and mortals. She was very obliging, polite and intelligent and the conversation went back and forth for a good while. And then at a certain point, perhaps slightly exasperated by my philosophical probing, she said ‘Of course, what theatre is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas’.
I was internally stopped in my tracks and had to take several quiet, deep breaths. She was absolutely right. Theatre is not just about ideas. Nor is it about a message of any kind. If you want to send a message, get a smart phone or a laptop. Theatre is not some kind of moral tutorial. It is rather about being permitted, allowing oneself to be permitted, to enter what Peter Brook famously called ‘the empty space’. If one allows oneself to get completely involved in what is happening onstage, one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity. This only happens in theatre. And it doesn’t always happen, as there obviously can be really bad theatre. But when it does happen, then no other experience comes close. It is this experience that one hopes for as the houselights dim and the play begins. Sometimes, it happens.
By watching dramatic personages in the most extreme situations, such as the horrors which befall Phaedra and Hippolytus, we look into the core, the core of life, of aliveness, in all its rich ambiguity and moral complexity. And if we allow ourselves, we are taken to a place where our usual, everyday vision of the world, our commonplace predictable reactions to events and our habitual moral judgments are suspended, temporarily switched off, alleviated if you will. At that point, we are deepened and elevated. It is not that we become someone else at that moment, but that theatre at its best somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and another space, another way of experiencing things and the world. At that moment, it is that so much the scales that fall from our eyes, but our eyes that fall like scales. We stumble about seemingly blinded, like Oedipus at the end of his tragedy, or sagacious, blind Tiresias. But suddenly, at the same moment, we see further. As the great German poet, Hoelderlin (who is cited more than once in Warlikowski’s production) said of Oedipus, ‘he had an eye too many perhaps’.
I stand for theatre, then. And this doesn’t require expensive tickets at some exclusive metropolitan venue. Theatre is not some rarefied bourgeois experience confined to the privileged. It can happen with two or three friends reading a book together, it can happen on the street, it can happen whenever we give ourselves over to that intensity of life, to the happening of aliveness, when we open ourselves to the core. The important thing is that can happen to anyone. Theatre is essentially democratic. It is that sudden confrontation with the core of aliveness that one looks at and it looks back. One walks away deepened, less certain of what one previously knew but somehow knowing more, with richer resources of empathy and a broader horizon of tolerance.