Phaedra is set to join the (Go)dots

Theatre director Sophie Hunter, pictured here with her husband, Benedict Cumberbatch.Picture: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Image

Sophie Hunter directs a rarely-seen work by Benjamin Britten that provides a link to major influences on Beckett, writes Padraic Killeen

Beckett saw Racine as a key influence on the development of the modern novel. And, from there, you can see the influence of Racine on him

THOUGH she may be popularly known as the wife of actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Hunter is an avant-garde theatre-maker of growing repute. She gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy, in June, but has also managed to direct a work for the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival this weekend.

This site-specific production of Benjamin Britten’s one-woman cantata, Phaedra, fuses elements of theatre and opera. It will take place on the grounds of Necarne Castle, in the provocative space of an equestrian arena.

The London-born 37-year-old signed on to produce a new work at the Happy Days festival after her uncle, pianist Julius Drake, put her in touch with festival director Sean Doran. Once he learned more about Hunter’s work with contemporary classical music, Doran proposed instead that she should tackle Phaedra, Britten’s raw operatic piece based around Jean Racine’s seminal play, compressing the latter’s five acts into a ferocious 15 minutes.

“So I started listening to it, and it really sparked my imagination,” says Hunter. “I’m really interested in pushing the concept of the concert experience. With Phaedra, I really wanted to think about space, and I was really inspired by the way the festival had been commandeering different spaces in the town as venues. So then Necarne Castle came up. It’s an abandoned castle but more importantly it has this Olympian sized equestrian arena.

I can remember Sean saying that the arena might be too bi’ for the piece, and me saying ‘That won’t be a problem’. Britten’s cantata is a short, intense piece, but it’s a drama of epic Greek proportions.”

You could be forgiven for wondering what all this has to do with Beckett. In fact, Racine is the quilting-point that connects Britten’s cantata to the Irish writer. As emerged a few years ago, with the publication of Beckett Before Beckett, a book based around the lecture notes of the writer’s former students in Trinity College, Beckett was a huge admirer of the 17th century French dramatist

“Beckett saw Racine as a key influence on the development of the modern novel,” says Hunter. “And, from there, you can see the influence of Racine on him — he was only 25 when he was giving those lectures.

“Beckett described Phaedra as ‘almost a pathological study in which everything passes in her mind’. And the drama that unfolds in Beckett’s theatre is also unbelievably psychological, to the point where much of it is just monologues and all the action is interior. But it’s made into this compelling narrative. That would be the overarching similarity that I see between Beckett and Racine.”

The fact that the connections between Beckett and Racine are being explored via the opera of Benjamin Britten is itself interesting, meanwhile, especially given the music-loving Beckett’s reservations about opera, which he once described as “a hideous corruption of this most immaterial of all the arts”.

These suspicions about opera, however, didn’t prevent Beckett from collaborating with avant-garde composer Morton Feldman on the latter’s lone opera, Neither, to which Beckett contributed the libretto.

Nevertheless, Beckett shared with Feldman a distrust of opera and its tendency to burden music with narrative.

Hunter admits she hadn’t been aware of Beckett’s work with Feldman, but says that the attitude of both men to opera doesn’t surprise her.

“They were both innovators and experimentalists. So, clearly, in taking on opera, they would want to take it apart and create their own language for it”

“I’m now intrigued to look into it,” she laughs. “And I’ll probably pitch it to Sean for next year.”

Phaedra runs today and tomorrow. 


Ensuring your estate goes to those you wish

Snap to it and be app aware: Tips to keep kids safe in a social media world

‘Furniture’ play is couched in relatable language

Have tapes, will travel: Shimkovitz on his quest to spread the word on Africa's rarest music

More From The Irish Examiner