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A CurtainUp London London Review

Love is a deadly poison in this house.
---- Hippolytus
Clare Higgins as Phaedra and Ben Meyjes as Hippolytus
(Photo: Johan Perrson)
Modern adaptations of classic tragedies often turn out to be either solemnly traditional or gimmicky and contrived. Not so Tom Cairns' production of Phaedra, adapted from Racine by Frank McGuinness. Full of intense, dark energy, it portrays raw passions and simply oozes gripping pace.

Based on Euripides' version of an ancient myth, Racine gets a superb update from Frank McGuinness. Bringing to the fore the primeval nature of the story, the audience witnesses the almost savage humanity inherent in the tragedy. Love is impossible and catastrophic for these mythic characters. Phaedra's (Clare Higgins) passion for her stepson Hippolytus (Ben Meyjes) is both irresistible and absolutely forbidden. Added to this hopeless dilemma are Hippolytus' taboo love for Aricia (Marcella Plunkett), the last survivor of a family killed off by his father, and a report of the absent Theseus' death, throwing Athens into a turmoil of political factions.

Frank McGuinness' writing is pacy and earthy, in a great combination of vibrancy and naturalism. For example, Phaedra exclaims in angry self-disgust, "I smell of incest, I stink of lies" because "Venus has got her prey by the throat". Neutralizing the otherness of a story known millennia ago, the text is full of simplistic yet vivid expressions. McGuinness' refusal to adhere to notions of a high-flown poetic register creates a kind of fierce yet immediate momentum.

In keeping with the rugged humanity of the writing, the design also has a rough-edged, down-to-earth aesthetic. The dusky-coloured, layered costumes are unobtrusively ancient. A stone temple serves as a background, but it is covered by a green-grey gauze screen, onto which an image of the sea is projected. There are piles of stones, a statue pointing at its own reflection in a mirror and a fire lit onstage. No specific time or location is prescribed. This has to be the right choice for McGuinness' play, which feels relevant to us, but not exclusively so.

Strong performances from the whole cast are the ultimate aspect of this exemplary production. Last year, Clare Higgins won an Olivier for her portrayal of Hecuba at the Donmar. However, she is in no danger of repeating a standard Greek heroine performance. Her Phaedra clearly has "the blood of the Minotaur in her veins." Unlike the decorous Euripidean heroine, Clare Higgins is not afraid to shout and scream as she is wracked by the agony of a torturous, invincible love. Ben Meyjes, who replaced Paul Nicholls who suffered a severe throat infection, is also excellent as Hippolytus. The son of an Amazon queen, this Hippolytus has just the right mix of youth and strength. The production creates just the slightest possibility that Hippolytus might not reject Phaedra, resulting in a very tense confrontation between them. Michael Feast is a rather scrawny, vagabond-looking Theseus, the legendary philanderer. Linda Bassett plays Oenon, Phaedra's obsessively devoted nurse, who will resort to any desperate machinations to preserve her mistress.

Personally, I would have liked to see what this creative team would have made of the Euripides, where the inhumanity of the gods carves out a little hope for the mortals who possess compassion and forgiveness. Nevertheless, this is a forceful production of a compelling play -- a visceral, untamed tragedy vividly realised and impressively acted.

Written by Frank McGuinness after Racine
Directed by Tom Cairns

Starring: Clare Higgins
With: Ben Meyjes, Sean Campion, Linda Bassett, Janet Whiteside, Marcella Plunkett, Lucy-Anne Holmes, Michael Feast
Set Design: Tom Cairns
Costume Design: Amy Roberts
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Music: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham
Running time: One hour 45 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 3rd June 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge on 24th April 2006 performance at the Donmar Warehouse Earlham Street London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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