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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

  La Femme est Morte
Pleasance, Edinburgh

Andrew Haydon
posted 28 August 2007

It seems to be a Fringe tradition in recent years for one American company to become toast of the town for the month. For the last couple of years it has been the T.E.A.M., and before that the Riot Group. This year’s undisputed winners must be Shalimar Theater, a New York-based group on their second British outing with their irreverent assault on the Phaedre story: La Femme est Morte – or why I should not fuck my son.

Bursting onto the stage like the kids from Fame turned sleazy ‘trailer trash’, they proceed to build the story using a clever mix of registers from ‘dude’-littered dialogue through to some pretty elevated poetic declamation. The action is frequently punctuated or commented upon using a brilliant selection of trashy pop classics. The overall effect is like classical tragedy moulded from cultural detritus. The action of the piece itself has been loosely relocated to contemporary America, so the central royal characters – Theseus, Phaedre and Hippolytus, are modern celebs continually dogged by paparazzi while Oenone becomes Phaedre’s PR manager or image consultant.

It’s a neat aesthetic decision that enables the company to make a wry comparison between Classical tragedy and the modern world’s obsession with celebrities’ car-crash lives. The piece also uses Theseus’ role as a warrior to advance some not-very-veiled criticisms of the US war effort: ‘We’ve ‘liberated’ Crete!’ While I could quite happily never see another anti-war play, this being a US-based company, it at least avoids the usual lazy anti-American slurs which usually come with the territory.

What really lifts this show several notches above its competitors is the subtle use and sheer range of the pop-cultural quotation deployed by Shoshona Currier’s sharp script: Phaedre compares her early love of Theseus to ‘Katie watching Tom in Risky Business’; there are allusions to Britney, Paris and Diana (no, not the Greek goddess); there’s even a blink-and-you’ll miss it visual reference to Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’. These manage at once to be very funny and neat comments on the poverty of our modern celebrity culture. The music is deployed in a similar fashion. 'Back for Good' and 'Two Become One' (Take That and the Spice Girls respectively - pay attention) are both milked for all the schmaltz they can yield as incidental music. Elsewhere a whole-cast performance of 'My Humps' is both funny and raunchy as a reconciliation scene, while Guns and Roses’s 'Don’t Cry' played on a harp deals neatly delivers the play’s own funeral scene.

And while maybe not all the performances from the energetic and, frankly, sexy cast are technically perfect, there are more than enough jokes, ideas and sheer enthusiasm here to cover for any occasional lapses. Revelling in trash and kitsch while dealing with a classical text is a simple idea, but the way it is treated here, as a powerful and acute commentary on our media-dominated lives is something very special indeed.


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