The rescheduled press night for Phaedra, starring triple Olivier Award winner Clare Higgins, took place at the Donmar Warehouse on Friday (21 April 2006). The production was due to start performances on Thursday 6 April, but instead, that day saw the sudden departure of Paul Nicholls, who had to withdraw from the role of Hippolytus on medical advice (See News, 7 Apr 2006). As there are no understudies at the 250-seat Donmar, the first week’s performance had to be cancelled before Nicholls was replaced by Ben Meyjes (See News, 10 Apr 2006).
For some critics, it was well worth the wait as a tour-de-force performance by Higgins in the title role in Frank McGuinness’ new version of Racine’s 1677 piece of classical tragedy (directed and designed by Tom Cairns) stole the show. However, some were less impressed with the translation and staging.
The king is missing, presumed dead. His warrior son is braced for inheritance but is betrayed by his heart. Phaedra, the tormented queen, has a terrifying secret that will shake Athens to its core. Based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, Racine’s Phaedra reveals the devastating potential of love and the brutality of human nature. The cast also features Sean Campion, Michael Feast and Linda Bassett, as well as Marcella Plunkett, Lucy-Anne Holmes and Janet Whiteside.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “Racine’s glorious, rolling verse reflects the sonorous, doom-laden situation… McGuinness rejects the tradition of rendering Racine’s 12-syllable alexandrines into Shakespearean ten-syllable iambics, fracturing Racine’s majestic classicism with a busy hotchpotch of sawn-off blank verse, staccato phrases and idiomatic slang.” And he was baffled by the title performance by “the estimable Clare Higgins” who plays Phaedra “as a crazy gypsy fortune-teller…. Her state of hallucinatory mental illness is immediately transparent. And that’s the problem: the performance is complete before it’s begun.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Phaedra offers 100 minutes of theatre at its purest and most savagely intense. The production's secret weapon is Clare Higgins… She is, I venture to suggest, the greatest British actress we now have when it comes to communicating overwhelming tragic emotion on stage…. Every speech, every gesture seems to be dragged from Higgins's heart and guts.” He commented that the actress “receives outstanding support” from the hastily drafted in Ben Meyjes as Hippolytus but was less happy about the translation’s “occasional jarring modernisms, such as ‘top yourself’ and ‘done the dirty’”.
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - Contrary to Spencer, De Jongh couldn’t have been less impressed with the “jarring dissonances of the production”. He complained: “It requires a rare talent to convert Phèdre, Racine's masterpiece of 17th-century French tragedy, into a piece of theatre that sometimes sounds as if aspiring to become a Channel Five soap opera.” According to De Jongh, Higgins’ “woe-begone” title character “might be suffering the hangover blues after a heavy night out on London town rather than nursing an unrequited passion for her stepson in ancient Greece.” He concluded: “Bathos intrudes. Metaphors are mixed, language is sometimes incoherent… Racine has been ravished rather than revived.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian - Despite misgivings about the video-heavy design, Gardner deemed this “an evening of real potential” with the “finest ingredients” including Frank McGuinness’ new version that “cuts across the 17th-century rhetoric like a razor blade to deliver up a sharply contemporary script” and a cast led by Clare Higgins, who is “arguably the most recklessly exciting actress of her generation”.
Benedict Nightingale in the Times - “It’s time that Higgins took her place at the top table beside our greatest actresses, for she has more capacity for malevolence than Judi Dench, the inner darkness that distinguishes Eileen Atkins, and as much power as Fiona Shaw. Here, she suggests that a civil war is occurring inside herself.… If there’s a more impressively unsentimental performance in town — desperate, vulpine, almost slatternly — I don’t know it.”
- by Caroline Ansdell