Phedre. National Theatre. 21st July 2009.

Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus and Helen Mirren as Phedre Photo: ALASTAIR MUIR

I have never seen or read any Racine, my only previous knowledge was hearing what a phenomenal part it is for an older actress and how good Diana Rigg was in it back in the nineties. It’s the standard by which French actresses are judged, so there is scope to be great which is a bit of a double edged sword if you’re going to tackle it. Anyway, it was all new to me so I sat up straight ready to listen, relying on Ted Hughes translation to keep me interested and entertained if it all got a bit heavy. No worries about those reviewers who wanted something different from the translation, it was sure to be good enough for me if it came from him.

Well it’s not Shakespeare, or anywhere near, that’s for sure. There are some wonderful speeches (especially one where Hippolytus declares his love for Aricia) which Ted Hughes had done a great job on but Racine is nowhere near as good. He knows how to plot and twist the emotional knife and the whole thing charges along like an express train towards the inevitable buffers, but there isn’t the warmth and humanity of Shakespeare there, and the verse isn’t as beautiful or rich. It’s full of high energy posing which struts and frets rather than breaking your heart. If any French scholars want to argue with me they are welcome. It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. It wasn’t too much of a disappointment, as Shakespeare can see off most playwrights.

The acting was wonderful. I first saw Helen Mirren as a very young Lady Macbeth for the RSC early in her career and she has the same beauty and fragility of gesture on stage that she had back then, and the same formidable stage presence and great verse speaking. Phedre needs to be beautiful and forceful so that her falling in love with her stepson is credible and tragic, not a silly middle aged woman’s folly so both those things are important. Dominic Cooper was just as good as Hippolytus and he also did the verse justice. He was able to make a good, principled character edgy and interesting. Just for the record he is also extremely handsome. Margaret Tyzack is still on stage acting with great power and clarity after all these years, which is good to see, and everyone else was great. Not a word to say against any of them.

The set was beautiful. It was the great curving sea terrace of a palace set into a cliffside, swinging round to the left and it was perfectly lit to suggest the sea beyond and growing menace as time went on. It was a big empty space with just three skeleton chairs and a single step along the front of the proscenium with sand beyond it and Nick Hytner used the characters like chess pieces on it relying mostly on character and verse to keep the momentum going. What few effects there were worked really well, particularly a jug thrown in temper to spread wine like blood across pale stones, and especially the terrible moment when Aricia drags the sack containing Hippolytus’ body across the stage leaving a trail of blood.

I was so lucky to be there.


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