A queen without command

National Theatre, London

While one could scarcely say that Racine was all the rage on the London stage, there has certainly been more of the 17th-century French tragedian around of late. Cheek by Jowl recently brought a superb all-French production of Andromaque to the Barbican, the stripped-down staging delivering the play as a psychological study of obsession, grief and guilt. Now Nicholas Hytner tackles Phèdre in a lean and beautifully sculpted production that relishes the awful inexorability of the disaster, and again finds psychological truth in the play’s remorseless gaze. Ted Hughes’ 1998 translation does not opt for Alexandrine couplets, but renders the text in a sinewy, visceral verse of his own. It’s not pure Racine, but it works in its way. But what holds the production back, as yet, is that Helen Mirren, as the doomed queen besotted with her stepson, doesn’t quite fill the part.

From the moment the curtain rises on Bob Crowley’s austere set, it is clear that there will be no escape. Theseus’s palace here is configured from great cracked slabs of honey-coloured rock: the ceiling looms over the characters like the forces that will crush them. To the side of the stage is the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean sky, suggesting a tantalising freedom. The characters – men in military trousers; women in floor-length robes – could be from any age and any hot country where the moral parameters for the sexes are different. One of the strengths of Hytner’s staging is the subtle contrast between the men, who stride, and the women, who scurry. Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus has a proud, aloof beauty and when Stanley Townsend’s commanding, burly Theseus walks in, everybody quakes.

Mirren’s Phèdre blows about this space like a leaf. Pale and drawn, she vividly presents a proud, clever woman, furious that she has been unhinged by desire. She is excellent at the detail: at Phèdre’s undignified scrabbling for scraps of hope, her biting self-criticism and her ashen resolve at the end. But the full scale of the role eludes her: she hasn’t yet found the immense presence required to hold the stage, and keep holding it, with the horror of her predicament or to convince you that she cannot escape her demented state.

Still the production does grip, as each twist of the plot tightens the knot. And there are some tremendous performances in the supporting roles, particularly Margaret Tyzack as Phèdre’s wily old nurse and John Shrapnel as Hippolytus’s counsellor, who excels in the difficult task of reporting the young man’s gruesome death. ★★★☆☆

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