Someone unversed in the interstices of Greek tragedy who turns up at the Donmar Warehouse production of “Phaedra” may take one look at the two packed pages of “The story so far …” program notes and start to panic. He needn’t. The single-minded drive of Tom Cairns’ fiercely focused production renders preparatory reading interesting but far from essential.
The billing says this new version of “Phaedra” is “by Frank McGuinness after Racine.” McGuinness has controversially taken Racine’s 1677 tragedy, itself a major reworking of a play by Euripides, and refashioned it. The plot remains the same — missing and presumed dead, Phaedra, queen of Theseus, falls in love with a younger man who, fatally, happens to be her stepson — but McGuinness has his own agenda: immediacy.
Racine used the highly wrought verse form of Alexandrines to temper potentially overwrought passions. This is, after all, a play dealing openly with almost incestuous intimacy, not to mention hatred, terror, revenge and self-sacrifice. McGuinness, however, abandons rhyme and heads toward a more direct expression of emotion. His admirable confidence is well-founded: This was written for Clare Higgins, who, two years ago, took the equally stormy title role in McGuinness’s version of “Hecuba” at this same venue.
That production was directed by Jonathan Kent, a director famous for amplifying his actors’ emotions. What charges up Cairns’ production is Higgins’ engrossing restraint. Not that this self-lacerating performance is to any degree emotionally withholding; quite the reverse.
From her opening line, “Living — go on living — I don’t know how,” Higgins turns self-pity into galvanizing rage. Where other actors put themselves through the wringer by displaying emotions so as to impress auds, Higgins uses emotion like fuel: It’s what drives her forward.
Torment at her situation causes her eyes to blaze, but rather than looking out into the auditorium she’s constantly looking forward, her mind fixed on her character’s terrifyingly heedless journey of self-destruction. Playing a woman arrested by painful circumstance, she’s extraordinarily active. It’s all the audience can do to keep up with her as she moves through states of desire, self-loathing and bitter pragmatism.
Her power grows in intensity throughout her headlong trajectory to death, partly because she’s partnered by actors on the same level. Linda Bassett, once an outstanding Medea, knows all about high status, which lends a riveting depth to her perf as the nurselike servant in whom the queen unhappily confides.
As Hippolytus, the unwilling object of the queen’s affection, Ben Meyjes is impressively staunch. Dangerously in love with Marcella Plunkett’s Aricia, he holds himself erect with youthful high seriousness. His performance is all the more impressive given that he had barely a week’s rehearsal after Paul Nicholls was forced by ill health to withdraw from the role.
The hardest task for a director of material as stark as this is to create a world on the right scale. Push everything too high in a 250-seat venue like the Donmar and the audience will recoil. Reduce it to a more naturalistic domestic level and the emotions won’t take wing. McGuinness, knowing he was writing for this space, helps matters by removing bombast and consciously employing anachronisms with phrases like: “done the dirty” and “I didn’t fall for this foolish scam,” as spat out by Michael Feast’s lean, thuggish and downright dangerous Theseus.
The effect robs Racine’s drama of its austerity but results in a more complicit tone that pulls text and audience closer together. At the same time, the carefully placed rhythms of the speeches retain a degree of formality echoed by Cairns’ own sculptural set, suggestive of immense power and authority.
In the center of the unadorned walls, broken only by a small entrance backed with gold, Cairns places a dark, translucent gauze, on which black-and-white video imagery of the sea (with accompanying soundscape) is projected. The fleeting images are suggestive rather than fixed because Cairns is paying his cast the compliment of allowing them, not the design, to provide the power.