The Greeks just go on giving. Writer-director Simon Stone’s play, set today amid the upper-middle classes of Holland Park and second-home Suffolk, credits itself modestly as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”. Ah, here it comes again; two thousand years of blokes worrying about the ladies running amok when not kept under proper male control: murderous Medea, uncooperative Antigone, and in this case Phaedra falling in love with her stepson. Mr Stone has also explained that he has a great interest in menopause and its emotional trials, and it is pretty clear from the start that our heroine is ripe for this intriguingly fashionable trouble.
Janet McTeer plays Helen, a shadow cabinet minister, with expensive blonde hair and a symmetrical family. The opening scene – it’s in yet another revolving glass fishtank, by the way – sketches them. There’s Declan, an entitled teen from hell who jumps on the posh white sofa in his trainers and tells everyone to fuck off; there’s grownup Isolde who’s been failing to conceive with her wet partner Eric, but fundraises for an NGO and is too socially conscious to do IVF. Paul Chahidi is the Iranian-born, tolerantly domestic paterfamilias. Chahidi, thank God, is very funny and credible. When Birmingham is mentioned he patronizingly gushes “nice town!”but asked has he actually been there says yes, er, no, it must have been Bristol… Perfect.
The family talk at once, naturalistically so little sense arises for a while except a hint that they’re all very preoccupied with sex. Into their midst comes Sofiane, the son of Helen’s first love in her wild Morocco phase with rich Oxford mates: he was a dissident artist and of course Sofiane looks just like him so Helen (ooh, we menopausal menaces!) immediately wriggles and flirts like a teenager. Well, Assaaad Bouab from Paris is beyond irresistible. His father Achraf long ago died in what Helen romantically likes to relate as a crash caused by the secret police cutting his brakes, but which – in the first properly dramatic moment – Sofiane reveals was more to do with the drugging and drinking into which she, a carefree affluent Western hippie, led a decent man. He was just nine when she took him off his real family, once Sofiane saw them in congress while his mother wept. Obviously his arrival rapidly leads to a steamy embrace with Madam Minister in a number of sets the glass box magically contains , notably a floor mattress in an unoccupied ?Birmingham office block where one of his friends does security. It also contains (top marks to the stage crew) some breast-high reeds in Suffolk where the family bicker a bit more, Isolde and Eric break up, and Helen confides to a weary MP friend that this new passion makes her body feel alive and it’s forever.
Sadly Sofiane’s is less determined, and when Isolde confronts him about the affair – guess what, in no time there’s more work for the Intimacy Co-Ordinator!. This all happens in short chopped scenes between deep blackouts and bursts of dramatic exotic-tribal-sacred score by Stefan Gregory.
I was a bit jaded by the interval, frankly: too many people shouting “It’s complicated” when actually it isn’t: feels more like every confessional-cougar feature about How My Younger Lover Gave Me Back Myself, crossed with BBC4 Hotter Than My Daughter. They’re all just too shallow to be Greek, or tragic, or anything but mildly satirically interesting and well-acted (Mackenzie Davis as Isolde, a professional debut, deserves credit for making her as real as the script allows. I even believed the bit about being body-shamed by a German boy on the beach when she was twelve).
But never fear. The second half brightens up no end, with Helen’s restaurant birthday party two months on. It starts with her friend telling her she’s a self centred bitch, and as Sufian and Isolde arrive together and Hugo turns out both more drunk and less tolerant than usual (I do love Paul Chahidi!) , it descends into a comedy of unwelcome revelations. Good fun, rather as if Alan Ayckbourn had popped in to give the author a hand. A grand moment from John MacMillan’s hitherto wet Erik, by the way, and stalwart work by supernumaries as other restaurant customers politely trying to ignore the screaming.
I did wonder how the heroically self-absorbed heroine would get round to her compulsory Euripidean suicide – as sketched so far, her character seemed more likely to write an exculpatory piece in the Guardian and do Strictly – but when the tabloids get her, the Cabinet career falters since “it doesn’t look good for the party’s stance on immigration” if ministers keep shagging illegal immigrants. So in a rather awkwardly tacked- on coda, the great glass fishtank turns out to contain a snowy Moroccan mountainside where fearful truths about her delusionary romance come clear, albeit in hissed French with surtitles delivered by a whole new character. So at last McTeer is allowed a full mad melodramatic range. Remembered how good she really is. Deserves a better, far less uneven, play.
Nationaltheatre.org.uk. , to 8 april