Phaedra, Donmar Warehouse, London

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Clare Higgins is the actress who can go further: when she touches on grief, venom, rage, lust, despair, she finds them like raw nerves. As Phaedra, consumed by guilty passion for her husband Theseus’s son Hippolytus, she reaches all those, and I marvelled again, as I often have in the past, at the seeming ease with which she reaches areas of such emotional intensity. She refuses to make these pretty, but she also refuses to make them showy. She’s just there, embodying her roles, moment by moment, with her particular kind of generosity and drive.

She is playing the role at the Donmar Warehouse, in a production planned as a sequel to the same theatre’s 2004 account of Euripides’s Hecuba, in which she played the title role and where the English text was by Frank McGuinness, who has written this Phaedra “after Racine”. “After” is a nice covering word: McGuinness adds nothing interesting to Racine’s original, but he is often flashy and slapdash in his version. “Regardez d’un autre oeil une excusable erreur” becomes “You’ve made a mistake – learn to live with it.”

Much the same applied in his Hecuba, and both Donmar productions have followed his texts in ignoring the classical rigour of the original. The 2005 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hecuba was altogether better in that respect, though the Donmar production, already lucky in coming first with a play that few had seen before, had the merits of striking designs and fine supporting performances. Higgins was overwhelming, but it was a victory achieved against the formal control of Euripides. In the case of Racine, formality is all-important.

This Phaedra is directed by Tom Cairns. Rightly, he tries to keep it simple, but, without any of the visual imagery that made Hecuba or any sense of class (as Theseus, Michael Feast speaks with estuary vowels) or baroque austerity, the production lacks much of the tension that should give Racine’s play its power. I’m relieved that Higgins has none of the high-camp artificiality that marked London’s last two Phaedras, Diana Rigg and Sheila Gish, but I wish McGuinness or Cairns had established something for her intensity to war against.

Ben Meyjes has stepped into the role of Hippolytus at short notice: he doesn’t have the stunning-young- hero qualities that Hippolytus should have by birthright, but his interpretation is absolutely sincere, urgent. Linda Bassett does valiantly in the crucial role of Phaedra’s nurse/confidante/advisor Oenon, but she too is undone by McGuinness’s version. In her final speech, she has to address the gods as “Boys and girls up there”. The acting here isn’t showy, but McGuinness certainly is. ★★★☆☆

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