Phèdre is the supreme act of theatrical jujitsu. It takes the hysteria which characterizes the Greek form (though Phèdre is not a Greek play, having been written by Jean Racine in 1677) and turns it into a narrative device. Phèdre (Helen Mirren) is not just the Queen of Athens; she is a drama queen as well, and her histrionic self-absorption is the engine which both pushes the story into gear and shoves her to her doom.
It is a story from a time when men did not know whether they were gods or animals. Phèdre was a descendent of the sun god Helios, but her mother mated with a bull to create the dreaded minotaur, and the Queen herself displays both the imperiousness of a god and the impulsive aggression of a bull. It is a combination which proves deadly to her, and all around her.
Set entirely on a sun-bleached palace patio upon the banks of a Mediterranean so intensely blue it seems illuminated by some cobalt star, rather than our sun, Phèdre is also a story of people electrified by love, and by sexual passion. King Theseus (the magnificent, Wellsian Stanley Townsend) is missing, and Prince Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper), a grim, dignified man who once seemed impervious to love, finds himself longing for a woman forbidden to him, and to all men – Aricia (Ruth Negga), the granddaughter of the man Theseus overthrew to become King of Athens. And Phèdre, the Prince’s stepmother, is consumed with equally powerful urgings – toward the Prince himself.
The near-compulsory nature of the copulatory impulse was a lifelong study for the great Ted Hughes, whose admirable translation and adaptation this is. (He once wrote “All is birth. Nothing else matters.”) But the way Hippolytus and Phèdre handle their passions couldn’t be more different. Hippolytus tells Aricia that he loves her – and then frees her from her imprisonment, offers to return the Athenian throne, and prepares to sail off to find his father. Phèdre also confesses her feelings to her beloved – and when he refuses her, she storms dramatically off the stage and eventually, when Theseus returns, accuses her stepson of ravishing her.
Drama, of course, is the key to knowing Phèdre. From the moment she flows onstage in her purple gown, beating her breast and bemoaning the certain imminence of her death, we know that she is a woman for whom falseness is a way of life, and that she wears her emotions with the same deliberateness with which she wears her jewelry. The audience begins to chuckle with the second line, and within five minutes we are laughing freely. It is impossible to overestimate the difficulty of what Mirren is doing: authentically crafting an entirely inauthentic woman. You will not be surprised to learn that she pulls it off.
She is helped by castmates who are so superbly clear in intention and emotion that they seem to match the intensity of the azure onstage sky. The understated agony of Hippolytus – he longs to tell his father the truth but he fears it will kill him – the rage and pain of Theseus; the love and respect of Aricia…you long to pull Phèdre out of her quarters and say here, this is what real emotion is like. Even Phèdre’s crafty nurse Oenone (Margaret Tyzack), who conceives the plot which Phèdre puts into motion, experiences and displays her emotions honestly.
That things will end badly is never in doubt. But it is the details which show this family in its inexorable death spiral, and it is the extraordinary cast which shows us the details. It is hard, in the abstract, to imagine an actor who can play Theseus, who is compared – favorably – to Hercules. But the astonishing Townsend is so much a force of nature that I am obliged not only to commend him but the casting director, whoever it was, who found him. Cooper and Negga are so honestly and humanly noble that the failure of their love to flower feels like the death of Romeo. Tyzack, as Phèdre’s facilitator and co-conspirator, gives us a perfect picture of a woman who has placed all her chips on the Phèdre square, and will do anything she can to make the wheel give her the payoff.
The ultimate fate of Hippolytus is unstageable, and like much Greek drama comes to us by way of exposition. While exposition in Greek plays often takes us out of the fictive dream, the account John Shrapnel gives as Théramène, friend and counselor to Hippolytus, is so powerful and compelling that it may make you wonder whether Homer and the other great Greek storytellers sounded this way to their audiences.
Although you may have gleaned this already, the technical is similarly magnificent. In particular, Bob Crowley’s design is a work of art, which could be profitably observed, for a half hour or so, as any similar work might be observed at the National Gallery. The costumes (Julie Burns McKenzie is the wardrobe supervisor) are also beautiful.
But the glue which holds this production together is Mirren, a great actor who in an act of actorly humility plays a bad actor. As Phèdre preens, mopes, weeps and howls, the center of a universe large enough for only one person, Mirren and this superb production give us a lesson in authenticity.
Phèdre – TOP PICK!
By Jean Racine
Translated and adapted by Ted Hughes
Produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain at The Shakespeare Theatre
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
DCTS review – TOP PICK!
- Peter Marks . The Post