Love, lust and lies. Nobody did it better than the Greeks.
Euripides was one of the great playwrights of ancient Greece, known for the many tragedies he wrote, and his scandalous lost play Hippolytus Veiled shocked the ancient world. The play tells the story of Phaedra, Queen of Athens, a woman who pursed her desires relentlessly. When Phaedra falls madly and desperately in love with her stepson Hippolytus, tragedy is inevitable.
With only fragments of the play remaining, award-winning Playwright Nathan Joe re-imagined Euripides’ lost work for modern audiences, combining the exuberant and poetic language of the Greeks with sharp and brutal modern prose. Shawn Moodie sat down with the playwright to discuss what audiences can expect from Hippolytus Veiled:
Can you tell me a bit about Hippolytus Veiled?
Hippolytus Veiled is a lost Greek Tragedy. Euripides, who is one of the eminent Greek playwrights, wrote a play called Hippolytus, which is well-known and has been adapted countless times. It tells the story of Phaedra, the Queen of Athens, who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus. However, Euripides also wrote an earlier version of that play called Hippolytus Veiled which was actually lost – with only fragments remaining. So I’ve looked at those fragments, and the scholarly interpretations of what that play was like, and am trying to re-imagine it and bring it back to life.
Why this story at this point in time?
Recently there have been a lot of re-tellings of Greek tragedy’s and I was curious about why that was, and was then drawn to those stories myself. Greek tragedy also has an extremity of emotion – it’s not as much about psychological realism as it is about emotional states. In terms of Hippolytus Veiled, the content is quite severe to put it lightly. The main character, Hippolytus, is essentially a misogynist – he hates women, is is afraid of women, he has nothing nice to say about them – yet he’s the romantic subject of the play.
So I was quite interested in how we view subjects like misogyny, love, and sexual politics, not through a conventional or modern lens but through a classical one. I was interested in discovering what viewing these subjects through this lens could illuminate. Most people would tell you that love should be about understanding, respect, and communication whereas the Greeks took love in its most base and extreme state – and I was very interested into tapping into that.
How do you think Greek Theatre has influenced storytelling?
The idea of the unity of time and space that someone like Aristotle talked about has informed what we think well-made play is – it’s set in one location, it all happens in a short period of time, there’s a lot of drama. Even though we are moving away from that somewhat it’s still nice to know that there are storytellers who are still borrowing and using those techniques now, but the main influence still happens to be the stories. A lot of storytellers are going back and realizing that these are urgent stories that need to be told. They still say a lot about who we are today.
How do you hope that audiences will react – what should they take away from it?
When thinking about this I look at the Greek term ‘catharsis’, or emotional release. That’s probably what the audience gets out of it. By letting these extreme characters go to the edge, we’re provided with an opportunity to experience that without having to do it ourselves. We can examine those emotions and purge them out of our systems. That’s the idea that the Greeks had anyway – though we’ll have to wait and see whether that translates well here.
At the very least, I think there is something to be said for being able to see these dark versions of humanity – of ourselves. That’s why we watch things like Game Of Thrones or Breaking Bad – the characters are doing the things that we don’t like to admit that we would like to do. Though I’m prepared for the fact that this play may be a bit much for some audience members.
And what of the process of seeing the actors become those characters, it couldn’t have been easy on them?
They’re being pushed a lot in this play – we’re asking them to do a lot physically and emotionally – and that’s been something that the actors have needed to process. It’s a violent play – there’s physical violence, a lot of psychological wounds that are opened up, and the fact that these characters say a lot of things that we just wouldn’t say – so tapping into the real nitty gritty of these characters is obviously a challenge and something that they’ve had to confront.
Can you talk about working with director Patrick Graham – what does he bring to the production?
A willingness to approach the text for what it is and not try to water it down or soften it. He saw that that was why I wanted to do this play and ran with it. He’s also been patient with the actors and allowed them the time that they need to penetrate the text. He’s a well-versed Shakespearean actors outside of his directing, so he’s also well versed with dealing with the poetic language that is used in the play.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while working on Hippolytus Veiled?
The big one has been how difficult the text is in terms of the content and discovering where the line is, and while I won’t know whether I’ve judged it correctly until audiences see it, I’ve learnt to be confident in just doing it. We went through a process of softening it, going back and forth, but I ended up realizing that this is the story that I wanted to tell and it was important for me to just do it. I think it’s about backing yourself.
Who would enjoy Hippolytus Veiled?
The obvious choice would be anyone into classics – this is a chance to see an ancient play that technically doesn’t, and shouldn’t, even exist. But here we are trying to come up with a version of it anyway. Anyone interested in actors being allowed to play really ugly roles and being allowed to ‘go there’ will enjoy this because the characters aren’t pleasant. I do think there is something to be said for watching those performances – and for allowing us to live vicariously through them.
And what does the play offer audiences?
Hippolytus Veiled offers audiences an opportunity to watch bad people do bad things so that you don’t have to.
What: Hippolytus Veiled
When: Tue 16 August – Sat 20 August
Where: Basement Studio, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland
Tickets: Tickets are $15-22 and can be purchased here.
Running Time: 85 Minutes
R18: Please note this show contains explicit language and sexual abuse themes.