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11.08.09- Phèdre

Phèdre, The National Theatre, 09.08.2009, 3pm.

The National Theatre's much anticipated production of Jean Racine's tragedy Phèdre (in a version translated by Ted Hughes) more than lives up to expectation. Starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as Phèdre, queen consort to Theseus (Stanley Townsend), it was always certain to attract attention, and the praise that has been heaped upon Nicholas Hytner's production thus far has been unanimously complementary and deserved.

The narrative centres around Phèdre's tragic and shameful love for her stepson, Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper), whom she has banished for fear of acting upon her strong desire for him. When word reaches the kingdom of Troezen of the supposed death of Phèdre's husband (and Hippolytus' father) Theseus (Stanley Townsend), Phèdre is encouraged by her nurse Oenone (Margaret Tyzack) to confess her affection for Hippolytus to him. According to her, any incestual implications of a relationship between Phèdre and her stepson are negated by Theseus' death. However, as Phèdre confesses her shameful feelings to Hippolytus, his revulsion is plain. Her shocking revelation combined with Hippolytus falling in love with the princess Aricia (who possesses an ancient claim to the Athenian crown) and the re-appearance of a living Theseus sends the kingdom of Troezen and the lives of the characters into turmoil.

Aesthetically, the most striking thing about this production is the sparse set, designed by Bob Crowley. The proscenium-arch stage is a recreation of a Greek beach, incorporating cliff walls and a sand beach, which extends onto the forestage, bringing the performers (and by default the drama they are enacting) as close to the front row as possible. There are no scene changes in this production, which serves to enhance the claustrophobic feel of the piece, where the lives of the characters teeter on the edge of a cliff and at the mercy of the omnipresent and ever-fearful Gods. Combined with Paule Constable's subtle lighting design, which transforms from bright, almost blinding sunlight at the exposition phase to dark, melancholic shadow as the tragedy unfolds and the characters (specifically Phèdre) tread the thin line between metaphorical light and darkness.

The cast deliver some impressive performances against Racine's tragic backdrop. Helen Mirren is powerful and tormented in the title role, and seeing her perform live reveals her true strength as an actress; she is dynamic and in control throughout and commands the stage with the wealth of experience she has attained throughout her glittering career in the theatre. Dominic Cooper is mature and commanding in the role of Hippolytus, who seethes with anger and passion in equal measure. Cooper paces the stage like a coiled spring and potently demonstrates Hippolytus' inner conflict when he reveals his love for Aricia; the love he feels for her simultaneously consumes and scares him, given that he has seen so many great men become fallible at the hands of a succession of women. Ruth Negga is paradoxically vulnerable and strong as Aricia, and proves the power of a subtle look and stillness can be infinitely more powerful than melodramatic hysteria. John Shrapnel is also excellent is Théramène; both he and Cooper, perhaps even more so than Mirren, relish in their delivery of Ted Hughes' gritty translation of Racine's poetic French text, which, despite its ancient context, feels contemporary and urgent as the audience are confronted with scenes of familial strife, political intrigue and untimely death whilst the piece hurtles at breakneck speed to its tragic conclusion.

(Photo credit: Here and here.)


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