The curtain opens at the Lyttelton theatre to reveal a widescreen set of cinematic intensity, sandstone rocks cutting a ragged, stark outline against the azure sky.
This is designer Bob Crowley’s vision of Troezen, the location for Racine’s tragedy Phèdre, which dramatises the incestuous love of Phèdre for her stepson Hippolytus. With an ominous hum maintaining a constant backdrop, this high emotion drama is played out with an intensity that persists throughout the two hour running time.
Helen Mirren captures the tormented anguish of a woman in the desperate clutches of a forbidden love that has lasted years. So far she has hidden her love for Hippolytus – her husband Thesus’s son by a former liaison – behind a defensive wall of spite and rebuke, so everyone around her believes she hates, not loves, her stepson. In this play there is a fine line between the two.
So gripped by her emotions is Queen Phèdre that it is almost a madness, and yet at the same time it is a very real, empathetic passion. When she finally utters her hitherto unspoken desires to her elderly nurse Oenone, the beast is out, and Phèdre can contain it no longer.
Believing her husband Thesus to be dead, her long-harboured feelings tumble out in front of Hippolytus, who is resolutely unresponsive. In a witty scene between Phèdre and Oenone, which may extract a smile of recognition from many a woman, the Queen tries to convince herself that Hippolytus’s stony demeanour must mean he actually loves her back. I found myself wanting to tell Phèdre to read that popular self-help book: He’s Just Not That Into You.
As the moral core of the story, Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus is an upstanding, selfless, proud man who would not think of betraying his father with a liaison with the stepmother he thought hated him, particularly as he has declared his love to the imprisoned Aricia (Ruth Negga, whose white dress will inevitably be splashed with blood by the end). Yet when the rumours of his father’s death turn out to be false and Oenone’s plan to save her mistress’s honour is set in motion, Hippolytus’s loyalty is rebuked by the rash Thesus. Tragedy inevitably ensues.
As Oenone, Margaret Tyzack is a weary, straightforward woman who has given her life to Phèdre and will not see her charge destroyed now. Creating comedy with a simple look or a gesture, Tyzack provides a dour sounding board for the Queen’s theatrical histrionics.
All this is played out against a backdrop of war and power struggles, with the Greek Gods – harnessed by Thesus to devastating effect – looking on from above. Epic, powerful, moving and yet still surprisingly witty, Nicholas Hytner’s production is as bold as Crowley’s set.