Dame Helen Mirren returned to the stage last night (11 June 2009, previews from 4 June) for the first time since winning the Best Actress Oscar for the 2006 film The Queen in order to take the title role in Greek tragedy Phedre.
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.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (one star) – “It’s a funny thing, Racine in English, and it’s nobody’s fault, really, but it just doesn’t work ... Nicholas Hytner reverts to the 1998 translation by Ted Hughes in which Diana Rigg appeared at the Almeida and in the West End. It’s very good in its way but it’s not Racine. The verse is free form, with occasional pentameters and it’s brutish rather than stately and grand ... Helen Mirren is covered in purple veils and moves with deliberate languor and self-disgust. ‘I stink of incest and deceit,’ she says, admitting she has no more room for any more crimes. That’s simply not what she seems to embody ... We don’t see her boiling up or melting down, which is what happens in the play proper. This is an artistic decision, and it sells both Racine and Mirren rather short. John Shrapnel lends expressive weight as the counsellor Theramene describing the unnatural accident that precipitates the final disaster. The performance is given without an interval and runs for over two hours. It’s all very decorous and unmoving ... But what should have been a triumph for Dame Helen does not really challenge memories of Diana Rigg and, especially, Glenda Jackson, in the same title role.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “The title role is a magnificent one for a mature actress, like a French equivalent of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. If Helen Mirren doesn’t dominate the evening, that’s only because Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress production – two riveting hours with no interval – is impeccably cast across the board. Cooper first appears in designer Bob Crowley’s sun-drenched, polished-concrete palace in bare feet and rolled-up jeans, as if he has stepped off the beach in Mamma Mia!. A study in controlled, proud decency, he perfectly grasps the Ancient Greek ethos of duty even in the face of death. It helps that he has the kind of smouldering looks any stepmother might fall for. Stanley Townsend is a bruising hulk of a king ... Margaret Tyzack ... is a wonderful and even comic Oenone. Devious and ferocious, she is the Nanny who doesn’t know best. Alongside such colleagues, Mirren does not attempt to hog the limelight. But it’s a hugely intelligent performance, catching every throe of Phèdre’s internal battle between passion and decency ... She creates hauntingly memorable moments ... Hytner’s production is a rare, brilliant treat, showing that you really can do the French national playwright in English.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “Dame Helen is good ... A class act from a classy actress. She is not the only star of this cerebral, beautifully staged show. The other is the late Ted Hughes for writing such a haunting version of Racine's play ... The description of Hippolytus' demise, as delivered by Theramene, is a prolonged glory of the most high-flown writing. John Shrapnel delivers this speech with appalled totality, made all the more theatrical by the fact that until this point his has been a bit of a non-part ... Stanley Townsend's first entrance as Theseus has maybe a little too much of the Yasser Arafat about it (lose the ponytail and semi-military dress, Stan) and his Irish accent proves a distraction. But this is definitely a Theseus who has seen a lot of life ... I did not feel purged at the end of Phedre, but this two-hour show (no interval) is admirably serious in its ambition. It also gives us a fine actress in her prime.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress revival is almost unerringly fine, Ted Hughes’ translation simple yet bold and Bob Crowley’s set apt … Stanley Townsend’s performance (is) a big, brutal warlord with a face like a fist and a voice like a medieval canon … I’ve never seen a Theseus who exuded such strength, authority, outrage and danger. As the wronged Hippolytus himself, Dominic Cooper is what his secret love, Ruth Negga’s Aricia, says he is: strong, graceful, noble, proud. There are also excellent performances from the confidants, with John Shrapnel vividly evoking the young man’s hideous death and a doughty Margaret Tyzack grimly persuading Phèdre to tell destructive lies. But from the moment Helen Mirren crept onstage in a parody burka that veiled and swathed her entirely in purple, then crept out of it, an ashen moth desperate to stay in its cocoon, it was her evening ... By the end both passion and reason have gone. A beautiful Phedre has been boiled dry.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “The strength of Hytner's production is Phèdre herself, in Helen Mirren's forceful performance…Mirren gives us a real woman poleaxed by passion… Dominic Cooper's Hippolytus combines vocal incisiveness with a visible horror of his stepmother's wayward desire. Stanley Townsend as Theseus, the false news of whose death precipitates the tragedy, is a figure of burly power who might plausibly have slayed the Minotaur and bedded legions of women. And John Shrapnel is riveting as Theramene, Hippolytus' counsellor, and invests his long speech describing his protege's death with an incendiary rage. At times the quest for psychological realism is pushed a little too far: Margaret Tyzack is a shade too ironic as Phèdre's nurse. I applaud Hytner treating the play as a compelling drama rather than an animated poetry recital, and it is wholly in keeping that at the end … this production reminds us it is also in the dramatic action.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Mirren evokes Phèdre’s conflicted identity with skittish command ... Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus is an idler with a gift for lofty rhetoric. Cooper speaks with lambent clarity, but moves awkwardly - perhaps deliberately, since Theseus actually describes his character as ‘stiff’. Margaret Tyzack, hunched and doddery as Phèdre’s old nurse Oenone, does an impressive job of being both stern and humane, while Stanley Townsend’s ruggedly imposing Theseus bristles with menace, and Ruth Negga is gutsily innocent as Hippolytus’ secondary love interest Aricia. It’s Mirren, though, who anchors proceedings, and every time she steps on to Bob Crowley’s austere set of battered stone … one’s pulse sprints. This is only the third time a play by Racine has been staged at the National … Here in Hughes’ version his writing comes throbbingly alive.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “Actors don't just play great roles. Great roles play actors, testing their strengths, discovering their weaknesses. Rather to my surprise, the great Helen Mirren played Phèdre last night, and lost, though by a pretty narrow margin ... She never quite penetrates the dark heart of this great neo-classical drama ... She fails fully to capture the wildness and extremity of Phèdre's passion or the tormenting sense of shame that transforms love into a humiliating and ultimately fatal disease ... What's fatally lacking is a sense of tragic abandonment, the feeling that a great actress is laying everything she has before us, mind, heart, soul and guts. Ten years ago Diana Rigg delivered just that with a Phèdre that proved the peak of her career. Mirren's ... performance will grow if she dares more, exposes more, digs deeper. She needs to do all that by 25 June when her performance will be broadcast live, via satellite, to more than 60 cinemas around the world. Nicholas Hytner's production – in Ted Hughes' gutsy, free verse translation which will dismay those who favour Racine's formal Alexandrine couplets but which has undoubted punch – has plenty of good things elsewhere ... The finest performance comes from Margaret Tyzack ... And there's terrific work from Stanley Townsend ... If Mirren can only raise her game, this could become a great production rather than a merely good one."