'Phedre'

With a crack cast led by a spellbinding Helen Mirren in the title role, this is a night to relish.

Nobody shouts. It’s (almost) that simple. Racine’s high drama of incestuous love, pain and the whole damn thing is usually an excuse for the worst kind of sound and fury, with actors snapping the tension by sailing over the top. But although passions run high in Nicholas Hytner’s magnificently controlled production, self-indulgent emoting has been banished. With a crack cast led by a spellbinding Helen Mirren in the title role, this is a night to relish.

The National Theater run is already almost entirely sold out. However, the play is being filmed for live broadcast in more than 170 movie theaters worldwide on June 25. It will be fascinating to watch as Britain’s most accomplished stage and screen actress makes the simultaneous transition between the two mediums.

“She’s dying of some disease she hides from me,” frets Phedre’s over-zealous nurse Oneone (crabby and vengeful Margaret Tyzack) in her opening speech. In common with almost every pronouncement she makes, Oenone misjudges the situation. Phedre is neither dying nor diseased. She is being eaten alive by love. And guilt. The object of her love is Hippolytus (a ripped and poised Dominic Cooper), son of her husband Theseus.

Believing Theseus to be dead, Phedre is fatally persuaded to reveal her hand. Or, rather, her lust. Caught in a powerfully erotic clinch from behind by his desperate stepmother, Hippolytus is horrified — so much so that in a moment of high comic bathos he races to a tap and shudders beneath running water as he washes himself clean of her incestuous touch.

Unfortunately, Hippolytus not only fails to share her feelings, he truly loves Aricia (a striking National debut from staunch Ruth Negga). Worse still, it swiftly transpires that Theseus is very much alive.

Terrified by the possibility of exposure and egged on by Oenone, Phedre ratchets up the agony by falsely claiming to her husband (towering, weightily convincing Stanley Townsend) that Hippolytus raped her.

Much of the evening’s strength derives from the uncluttered self-confidence of the physical production. Edged in white sand and baked in Mediterranean sunlight by Paule Constable, Bob Crowley’s fiercely angled wooden set, with a giant, forward-jutting slab of a roof, acts as a literal and metaphorical sounding board for the actors. The design is offset by a single wall of ever-intensifying blue sky, with Constable increasing the saturation as events topple inexorably toward catastrophe.

Although this austerity throws the characters into stark relief, its angles provide the actors with an unusually dynamic space upon which to play out the highly charged duologues of Ted Hughes’ version of the original Racine text.

Written for the Almeida’s far more grandiloquent West End production in 1998, Hughes’ adaptation, while immensely faithful to the play’s movement and plot, replaces Racine’s elaborate, high-flown Alexandrine verse form with more taut language and freer imagery. Untethered from the original’s strict rhyming form, the actors never sound as if they are versifying. The unquestionable loss of formality is counterbalanced by the dramatic gain in directly expressed emotion.

Hytner began his career in opera and, in all the right ways, it shows. Understanding how vocals work, he encourages his actors’ voices to deepen as their emotions climb, which allows them to convey far more power and passion. Theramene’s evocation of Hippolytus’ death is all the more vivid for John Shrapnel’s thrilling restraint in the telling of it.

The aria-like length of speeches is no burden to Hytner or, therefore, to the audience. Where other directors animate speeches by resorting to overphysicalizing the proceedings with unmotivated, attitudinous striding about, Hytner increases tension by keeping characters still and apart even in moments of greatest need. This charges up the air between them and makes auds so long for them to connect that the rare moments when they do touch are electrifying.

The suggestively repressed groan and roar of Adam Cork’s ominous soundscape pervades the air, underscoring the elemental nature of the increasing “constellation of horrors” and providing a heightened platform of sound from which the actors take off.

Working with Hytner for the third time after the film “The Madness of King George” and “Orpheus Descending” at the Donmar, Mirren embodies his vision.

On stage, you realize she’s not tall but the ramrod-backed status she showed in “The Queen” is once again so high that she commands the space. That gives her the bedrock for real anguish that comes not from external handwringing but from the gut. Climaxes of love and self-loathing catapult her into physical action, but for much of the two hours, she flays herself alive while remaining unbending.

Mirren exemplifies the production’s strength by always acting her character’s immediate need instead of showing off the resulting emotions the text arouses. Instead of merely admiring her skill at say, tears and tantrums, the audience is held rapt — caught up in Phedre’s brilliantly plotted journey through desire and deceit.

Phedre

National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 898 seats; £42.50 $70 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in one act by Jean Racine in a new version by Ted Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative

Set and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting Paule Constable; sound, Adam Cork; production stage manager; David Milling. Opened, reviewed June 9, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Phedre - Helen Mirren Hippolytus - Dominic Cooper Theseus - Stanley Townsend Oenone - Margaret Tyzack Theramene - John Shrapnel Aricia - Ruth Negga Panope - Wendy Morgan Ismene - Chipo Chung
With: Alexander D'Andrea, Portia Booroff, Elizabeth Nestor, Tristram Wymark.
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