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A CurtainUp London Review
by Cassie Robinson
The archaic myth of Phèdre's calamitous love for Hippolytus is both simple and resonant: in her husband Theseus' long absence, the queen falls hideously, insuperably in love with her stepson. When the news of Theseus' apparent death reaches the city she reluctantly reveals her passion to the obdurate Hippolytus with dire consequences.
Helen Mirren gives a very assured performance as the once stately queen cracked by wrongful desire. Mirren excellently captures Phèdre's self-disgust, battling with but ultimately powerlessness in the face of her love. She also alleviates the tone of the inexorable tragedy with a good range of moods and emotions. So, for example, the audience see infrequent glimpses of the former,imperiously dignified and proud queen or, when Phèdre realises she was spurned in favour of another, her supreme pique and anger is palpably daunting.
Dominic Cooper's unshaven Hippolytus navigates the fine line between sympathy for the pure hearted if somewhat priggish youth and his unpitying, cold scorn of the queen. Stanley Townsend's Theseus, the philandering conqueror king, is menacing, intimidating and thuggish, a brutal ruler in guerrilla military gear. Ruth Negga gives a wonderfully natural performance as the wronged, innocent Aricia and John Shrapnel's rich, textured voice is put to good use as Théramène, Hippolytus' counsellor and deliverer of the all-important messenger speech.
Bob Crowley's design adds to the sense of cinematic sweep, with an expansive, broad presentation of space. Set outside the royal palace, the walls look like they have been carved from a cliff, with a dominating trunk of yellow stone adjacent to a vast, angled sweep of sky. The brilliant blue sky grows progressively darker during the play, reflecting the unified descent into tragedy.
Ted Hughes' translation mirrors this epic magnitude with direct, accessible language which is both vivid and timeless. Although a faithful, literal translation in terms of line by line meaning, Hughes' style is very different from that of Racine and his visceral, muscular translation is a world away from 17th century refinement. Instead, we have an almost Northern brusqueness, psychologically candid and forthright. Also, Hughes navigates very admirably the mythic metaphors, references and ancestry which so often hinder comprehensible, modern adaptations of classical tragedies. In particular, he returns to the myth of the Minotaur (Phèdre's half-brother) time and time again. Redolent of continued significance, the monster is a result of disgraceful love, both trapped within the labyrinth and a trap for those venturing in.
Although this Phèdre is slightly too long to run with no interval and can at times seem disjointed when the action swerves from one set piece to the next, this is nevertheless an admirable attempt at a difficult play. With lucid, charged direction from Nicholas Hytner, an indisputable star in Helen Mirren and a strong supporting cast, this is as satisfactorily produced as Racine in English ever is.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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