Phèdre

Jean Racine, in a version by Ted Hughes
RNT Lyttelton Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

After years of prognostications of doom for straight theatre, the London stage is currently awash with the cream of the acting profession on top form. As it should be, Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre is in the vanguard.

Dame Helen Mirren in the lead is as good as anyone but strong competition comes from Knights, Dames and those who should and in time will be, in plays including the Bridge Project pair at the Old Vic, All's Well That Ends Well upstairs in the Olivier plus Waiting for Godot, Hamlet and Arcadia in the West End.

Bob Crowley sets the action (or more accurately reportage) in brightly lit, Technicolor widescreen on a set filled with pockmarked marble and offset by a Mediterranean deep blue sky, with the actors in modern dress.

Phèdre is blinded and maddened by incestuous love for her handsome stepson Hippolytus, played by an original Hytner History Boy, Dominic Cooper, who is less imposing in classical mode.

When it seems that Stanley Townsend, twice the size of his female lead as King Theseus, has perished at war, she is so overwhelmed by passion that she lets the cat out of the bag with tragic consequences, despite the loyal guidance of the ever reliable Margaret Tyzack in the part of Oenone. That old retainer is, however, eventually the catalyst for events that will rock a dynasty following the unexpected return of the formidable warrior King.

At the same time, Hippolytus is in love with his greatest rival, Ruth Negga's Aricia, the daughter of an Amazon and potential claimant of the Athenian throne.

After two hours of the most concentrated drama, the play builds to fever pitch, like the Queen's passion, with horrors related in sequence, most dramatically by the marvellous John Shrapnel playing Hippolytus's servant, Théramène. The final symbolic vision of carnage is one that will long remain in the memories of all those who see this play.

The pick of the acting is really out of the top drawer and Dame Helen Mirren seems to draw the anguish of a diseased mind fighting itself to perfection.

Greek tragedy never makes for an easy night out but in Ted Hughes' bold, modern translation of Racine after Euripides with a tremendous cast under the sure direction of Nicholas Hytner, this production makes for compelling viewing.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher