Phèdre, National Theatre, June 2009


This play by Racine, originally performed in 1677, was presented here in a 1998 version by Ted Hughes, originally staged just weeks before he died. The story is based on the ancient Greek legend of Hippolytus, who was the object of unremitting desire by his father’s wife, Phaedra. In the Greek original, well expressed in Euripedes’ play Hippolytus, the young man is a devotee of the chaste goddess Artemis (Diana in the Roman version), and Aphrodite takes revenge against his rejection of erotic love by inspiring his step-mother with insatiable desire for him. His father Theseus, king of Athens, and of Minotaur fame, believes Hippolytus has forced himself on Phaedra, and calls down a curse from Poseidon. Only after the curse has taken effect, and Hippolytus has been killed by a bull-like monster from the sea, does Theseus realise his error. Racine’s main change to this legend is the creation of a new character, Aricia with whom Hippolytus is secretly in love, and she with him. This removes the misogyny from Hippolytus, and since Aricia is the daughter of an earlier king of Athens, it creates a political dimension. The other important difference is that Euripedes has Phaedra commit suicide after writing a note accusing Hippolytus of rape, whereas in Racine the accusation comes from Phaedra’s nurse while her mistress still lives.

In this performance, Phaedra was played by Helen Mirren, portraying an insecure woman only too conscious of her own inadequacies. Her stepson Hippolytus was played by Dominic Cooper, calm and secure in his own feelings, and her husband Theseus was powerfully played by Stanley Townsend, roaring his anger at Hippolytus and summoning Poseidon to avenge him. These three made a strong cast of principals, well supported by Margaret Tyzack as Phaedra’s scheming nurse, Ruth Negga as a sincere Aricia, and John Shrapnel as Hippolytus’ counsellor, whose speech describing the young man’s fearful death was very dramatically rendered. In fact this superb Nicholas Hytner production, with designs by Bob Crowley, lighting by Paule Constable, and an excellent sound score by Adam Cork, ends dramatically with Aricia dragging the dead remains of Hippolytus in a bleeding sack from stage rear to stage front. The broad trail of blood on the clean wooden stage is very effective.

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