The production also brings Mirren back to the National Theatre, where she made her last stage appearance, six years ago, in Howard Davies’ 2003 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Phedre, directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 27 August 2009. On 25 June, it makes history as the first production to be broadcast live to more than 100 venues around the world, including 50 cinema screens across the UK – as part of the new NT Live initiative (See News, 19 May 2009).
Jean Racine’s 1677 play, translated from the French by Ted Hughes, is based on the Greek myth about the queen who falls passionately in love with her stepson Hippolytus in her husband Theseus’ absence. Mirren follows in the footsteps of other famous Phedres including Glenda Jackson, Diana Rigg and, most recently at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006, Clare Higgins.
Mirren is joined by Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus, Margaret Tyzack as Phedre’s nurse and confidante Oenone and Stanley Townsend as Theseus. The cast also features Ruth Negga, John Shrapnel, Chipo Chung and Wendy Morgan. The production is designed by Bob Crowley, with lighting by Paule Constable.
The majority of overnight critics welcomed Mirren back to the stage with a slew of four-star reviews this morning. Her Phedre, they said, is “hugely intelligent”, “hauntingly memorable” and “forceful”: it’s a “class act from a classy actress” who is undoubtedly “in her prime”. Nevertheless, the production avoids being a mere star vehicle for Mirren by being “impeccably cast” throughout, from Dominic Cooper’s “graceful, noble” Hippolytus to Stanley Townsend’s “big, brutal” Theseus and Margaret Tyzack’s “comic” Oenone.
Whatsonstage.com’s own Michael Coveney’s one-star verdict that Racine is lost in English translation, whatever – “it’s nobody’s fault, really, but it just doesn’t work” – is at striking odds with other critics who felt that Nicholas Hytner’s “almost unerringly fine” production of Ted Hughes’ “throbbingly alive” version proves just the opposite.