Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dame Helen Sets the Pulse Sprinting; Mirren Is a Marvel in Racine's Mother of All Doomed Affairs

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dame Helen Sets the Pulse Sprinting; Mirren Is a Marvel in Racine's Mother of All Doomed Affairs

Article excerpt

Byline: HENRY HITCHINGS

FIRST NIGHT PHEDRE Lyttelton, National Theatre ****

JEAN RACINE'S 17th-century tragedy is a handsome study of the destructiveness of love, and the central role of Phedre -- the Queen of Athens, here realised by Helen Mirren -- is psychologically rich.

This is the story of a woman who, while her husband Theseus is mysteriously absent, falls in love with her stepson, the sexily post-adolescent Hippolytus. It's a passion doomed to have grave consequences.

The male characters in Racine's play are important. Half of it is about a son who believes he has lost his father, half about a father who believes he has lost his son. Yet it's the two men's connections with Phedre that impel the drama inexorably.

We don't see Phedre and Hippolytus together until 40 minutes into the play's two hours (there is no interval), but when the moment comes it is electric. After Phedre declares her feelings for her stepson, he has to take a shower to cool off -- the production's one snatch of pure comedy.

The most compelling moment comes later when Theseus tells Phedre that Hippolytus's affectations have gravitated elsewhere: an ashen Mirren registers the information and then, alone, feels beneath her ribcage for the "smouldering" resentment that threatens to "burst into hard flames".

Phedre's passions are complex, and she sees herself as unreadable. Indeed, the whole of Racine's play is clouded by uncertainty. Mirren evokes Phedre's conflicted identity with skittish command. She is a heroic lover, yet also viciously self-lacerating, capable of being rhapsodic, delicate, hysterically imploring, tyrannically possessive, haunted and ultimately quavery and spectral.

Dominic Cooper's Hippolytus is an idler with a gift for lofty rhetoric. Cooper speaks with lambent clarity, but moves awkwardly -- perhaps deliberately, since Theseus actually describes his character as "stiff". Margaret Tyzack, hunched and doddery as Phedre's old nurse Oenone, does an impressive job of being both stern and humane, while Stanley Townsend's ruggedly imposing Theseus bristles with menace, and Ruth Negga is gutsily innocent as Hippolytus's secondary love interest Aricia. …

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