Posted on: 01 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Sexual jealousy, guilt and suffering and the power and destructiveness of love are the themes explored by Racine in his savage play Phèdre.

Sexual jealousy, guilt and suffering and the power and destructiveness of love are the themes explored by Racine in his savage play Phèdre which has been revived in a new production directed by Nicholas Hytner at the NT’s Lyttelton auditorium.

Consumed by an uncontrollable passion for her young stepson and believing Theseus, her absent husband to be dead, Phèdre confesses her darkest desires and enters the world of nightmare.  When Rheseus returns, alive and well, Phèdre, fearing exposure, accuses her stepson – who is in love with another – of rape.  The result is carnage.

This is a play about desire which asks us to reflect on the terrible consequences of semi-incestuous passion, dysfunctional love and perverted celibacy as well as on their conflicting explanations.  In this version the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes replaces the French dramatist’s Alexandrine couplets with a lean, muscular free verse that eloquently serves to convey the passions and emotions of his protagonists, as exemplified by ‘No longer a fever in my veins, Venus has fastened on me like a tiger’, or ‘Before I could grasp what I’d seen I felt my face flame crimson – then go numb.  My whole body scorched – then icy sweat’.

The production is given a strong feeling of authenticity in Bob Crowley’s atmospheric set of a vast palace veranda facing the sea while Paule Constable’s lighting brilliantly captures the harsh Mediterranean sunlight under a bright blue, cloudless sky.

The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Helen Mirren in the title role.  Mirren, who first enters covered in a purple veil, the same veil that shrouds her body in the final scene, gets right to the heart of the character, capturing the tormenting sense of shame that transforms passion into a humiliating and ultimately fatal condition, as well as a pent-up desire for revenge, whatever the cost.  She is supported by fine performances from Dominic Cooper, who is full of stiff pride and fury as her stepson, Stanley Townsend, particularly impressive as her cursed and cursing husband, and Margaret Tyzack as Phèdre’s loving and faithful nurse whose wise advice only makes the situation worse.

In all then a stirring, though-provoking production that is proving a bumper for the National!

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre's Lyttelton auditorium.

When: Plays in repertory.

Box Office: 020 7452 3000.

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