Ensemble OrQuesta explore love and loss through an elaborate Greek tragedy. Idgie Beau reviews Hippolyte et Aricie, part of the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn 2019 season:

In their new production of Hippolyte et Aricie, Ensemble OrQuesta transform the Arcola’s Studio 1 into a wild jungle; a fine haze fills the air, the space crowded with a cacophony of birds and the babbling of excited audience members. The close heat of a soggy summer evening further transports the audience to the mythical world of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s baroque opera.

Hippolyte et Aricie Grimeborn Arcola Theatre
Image courtesy of Andreas Grieger

It opens with Thésée (Marco da Silva) entering the underworld to rescue a friend, a prisoner of Pluton (John Hollande-Avery). He fails in his task, and during a battle with the Furies it is prophesied that he will find Hell in his home.

Meanwhile, Thésée’s son, Hippolyte (Kieran White) and Aricie (Juliet Petrus) are in turmoil at the temple of Diane (Helen May). Aricie, the daughter of Thésée’s enemy, is compelled to take a vow of chastity, but guided by L’Amore (Katherine MacRae) and Diane herself, the pair are eventually united in love. Hippolyte’s stepmother Phédre rejects this, and offers herself to Hippolyte instead, angering both her stepson and the Gods. This tangled web of love and loyalty will ultimately lead to a tragic end.

Hippolyte et Aricie Grimeborn Arcola Theatre
Helen May & Kieran White (image courtesy of Andreas Grieger)

When it premiered in 1733, Hippolyte et Aricie divided audiences due to its overembellished style. Ensemble OrQuesta have committed to remaining faithful to the florid nature of Rameau’s piece, maintaining its busy and complex character. It’s a bold choice, especially with an elaborate set design, and the unusual decision to use interpretive movement throughout the piece. All of this makes for a labyrinthine visual spectacle that is wonderfully ambitious, yet wholly impenetrable.

Hippolyte et Aricie Grimeborn Arcola Theatre
Image courtesy of Andreas Grieger

It was Coco Chanel that once gave the sage advice:

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.”

Her comment on simplifying design – stripping away clutter – can be related to many areas of artistic expression. While staying true to the opera’s baroque origins is commendable, Hippolyte et Aricie is hidden behind the company’s over-enthusiasm for doing so.

There is simply too much going on, most evident in the scene change halfway through the first half. Director da Silva and designer Christian Hey have been extravagant in their decisions to change the entire set – it brings the performance to come to a complete standstill. Theatricality, and a consideration of the audience’s experience, is eschewed in favour of extraneous design.

The decision to add expressive movement into Hippolyte et Aricie equally misses its mark due to the performers’ lack of conviction in their movements. The whole concept of this piece are unreservedly distracting, carefully chosen moments of genius are crushed under the leviathan weight of this visual spectacle.

Hippolyte et Aricie Grimeborn Arcola Theatre
Juliet Petrus (image courtesy of Andreas Grieger)

Given the sheer number of ideas in Hippolyte et Aricie, the company are clearly an exciting group of creatives with a huge amount of potential. In reflecting on his production, da Silva describes love as being both a destructive and restorative force within Rameau’s opera. That theme seems to have unwittingly become the reality of his vision.