The myth of Phaedra starts as a relatively simple story about a woman’s romantic love for her stepson, Hippolytus. However, upon revealing her love for him, Phaedra is bitterly rejected.
What follows differs amongst telling’s of the myth but in most accounts, Phaedra is so ashamed that she takes her life. From there the story pivots to focus heavily on the new dynamic between Hippolytus and his father Theseus (Phaedra’s husband). Phaedra is reduced to a tool used to channel disgust and hatred towards older women and their sexuality.
However, in Susie Conte’s feminist reimaging of this ancient myth Monstrous Woman, presented by Tempest Theatre, Phaedra is finally put front and centre of the story which bears her name.
Susie Conte in Monstrous Woman
Susie Conte steps not only into the roles of director and writer with this piece but also takes centre stage as Phaedra herself. Yet, before Phaedra is revealed we are first introduced to our Chorus featuring Amy Welsh, Elizabeth Offer, Joel Mews and Shelby McKenzie.
For a show which runs for a swift 40 minutes, nothing feels rushed as time is taken for each actor to one-by-one arrive on stage and travel into positions which create the appearance of a classical painting.
Monstrous Woman is centred around visuals, portrayed not only through the set, costume and lighting but also in the direction. Susie’s direction sees intention behind each actor’s movements as they gracefully travel through the space, creating striking images wherever they pause.
Red is the only colour used across Jane Tero’s set and costume design and it’s done sparingly to ensure those moments stand out against the mostly black surroundings. Katrina Johnston’s lighting brings dimension to these visuals but also creates its own moments through haunting shadows against the walls of the room.
Although there’s a shift of focus in this adaption, and with that changes to the plot, the negative attitudes towards women are still presented through the use of the Chorus who taunt Phaedra with demeaning terms.
We then witness Phaedra spiralling downwards through overwhelming grief, embarrassment and pain. Music and more strong visuals, including some superb masks, carry us through the ebbs and flows of these emotions. Some moments feel large and all-consuming while others feel stripped-down and isolated.
Dialogue is almost non-existent through this time, allowing the audience to absorb the imagery. Viewers with a higher position in the theatre, likely had the best view of what was occurring while some of the action was missed by those sitting further down.
In the show’s conclusion, Susie demonstrates the true perseverance and strength of women. This adaption fills in the blanks of Phaedra’s story and in doing so brings relatability to the character. We watch her journey through different emotional states, emerging on the other side stronger than before. Monstrous Woman stays true to the tragedy of the original story of Phaedra, while inserting some much-needed humanity to the ancient tale.
Monstrous Woman is on now until the 6th of November at the Subiaco Arts Centre.