When I spoke to director Mike Tweddle, in rehearsal for the world premiere of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new version of Hippolytus, I started by asking what drew him to Euripides’ tale of jealous gods, domestic disharmony and destructive sexual obsession.

‘We read all the Greek tragedies, and we thought this one is very exciting, it’s quite funny and it’s quite accessible because it’s fairly domestic, it’s fairly modern. We felt like the characters had a place in the minds of modern young people. It’s not really about gods making things happen. It’s about everybody having collective responsibility for something going very wrong, and everyone being both at fault and admirable in different ways. There’s a kind of moral complexity about it that suits the way we think nowadays. It’s got great potential to be exciting and riveting and profound and sort of philosophical. I think it’s about how human beings react to things, and get things wrong, and how those reactions create a tragedy.

Kathy Tozer as Phaedra in <em>Hippolytus</em>. Photo by Bridget Jones.
Katherine Tozer as Phaedra. Photo by Bridget Jones.
I don’t think it’s about religion. The ancient Greek gods were all representative of different facets of human nature, so Aphrodite I think is a kind of metaphor for huge passion, huge love, and if she’s not acknowledged enough, worshipped enough, if you repress that facet of yourself, then it can be destructive. That’s what happens to Hippolytus. We’re not setting it in ancient Greece at all, it’s got classical touches, but it’s an imagined aesthetic really. It’s quite a fun world. We want these characters to feel part of the norm, to feel like real human beings’.

And how does the often-troublesome ancient chorus fit into this modern, emotionally-realistic world? ‘It’s only a small chorus’ Mike tells me, ‘only four people doing the job of a larger group. But when we asked Timberlake to write this new version she was clearly really keen on the choruses, really excited about their poetic and dramatic potential. And the words she’s written for them are great. Some of them really work with song, really work as lyrics, and a couple of them feel like they just take off into a more choreographic kind of world’.

Next door, the chorus are starting to warm up, singing and stretching together, tuning instruments, pulling faces at each other and laughing. ‘We do lots and lots of games, and playing’ explains Mike. Then he chuckles: ‘we were all being zombies yesterday morning – wanting to really engage a sense of naughtiness, mischief, irreverence and provocation in the chorus. We don’t want them all to be goodies and just stand and listen’.

Kathy Tozer and David Burke (Phaedra and Theseus) in <em>Hippolytus</em>. Photo by Bridget Jones.
Katherine Tozer and David Burke (Phaedra and Theseus). Photo by Bridget Jones.

The sense of fun in the rehearsal room is infectious, and I’m soon giggling along with the performers, but as the morning progresses it also becomes clear that these games have a serious aspect. ‘Obviously you have to share focus properly. We’ve done a lot of balancing space stuff, because you have to be very aware of where you are in relation to other characters, particularly as a chorus. We’ve done a lot of games where you’re balancing space, and getting sensitive to what different aspects of the space mean, and what it means to cross someone or be at the opposite side of the space from someone, or to be close’.

The four-woman chorus (‘one of them’s played by a man’) certainly seem to be thriving on this playful approach to the job. They sing, dance, strum guitars and bang drums, improvise, swap clothes and cheerfully muck about, reciting Euripides all the while. Their manner is laid back, focussed, gently self-mocking and thoroughly down to earth. And that, Mike confirms, is an important part of what the company’s about. ‘We wanted to tell ancient stories in fun and exciting and riveting ways. The last show, Out of Chaos, which we toured around Europe, was a multi-lingual, comic rollercoaster of a storytelling show that moved between modern anecdotes and ancient Greek myths. We were exploring the connection between the little interactions that happen on the Tube between strangers and the massive interactions that happened between gods and mortals in Greek myths, and how there’s a lot in common, actually – the way we tell stories now is the way we told stories thousands of years ago. The comedy’s the same. The human interactions are very much the same’.

. Ann Penfold and Kathy Tozer (Nurse an Phaedra) in <em>Hippolytus</em>. Photo by Bridget Jones.
. Ann Penfold and Katherine Tozer (Nurse and Phaedra). Photo by Bridget Jones.

‘They’re such brilliant, simple stories, these Greek stories’, he continues, ‘but they often get clouded in a mist of incomprehensibility. We want to create generous theatre, we just want it to be really exciting, and interesting, and fun, and moving if possible – and not too long’.

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