There are two virtually insoluble problems at the heart of any attempt to revive Jean Racine’s 1677 declamatory French masterpiece. First, how do we understand the mythological and supernatural elements in a tragedy where the heroine is a victim of heredity, descended from the sun and half-sister to the Minotaur? Her adulterous (half-incestuous) passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, whose mother was an Amazonian queen, is a direct consequence of this.
Secondly, Racine’s glorious, rolling verse reflects the sonorous, doom-laden situation at the court. Only one translation in recent years, that of Robert David MacDonald for Glenda Jackson’s performance in Glasgow and at the Old Vic, came close to approximating the doleful, soulful tread of the music.
At the Donmar, Irish playwright Frank 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.
This is interesting enough, but it simply isn’t Racine. Nor is the emphatic undertow of Catholic guilt sufficient compensation for the almost total lack of emotional grandeur. Racine does not sound like Racine without the tensile pull between modesty and madness.
The dying queen, who seeks to die with her secret intact but who is drawn to fateful confession, is played by the estimable Clare Higgins as a crazy gypsy fortune-teller. She's much wilder and more sensual than her recent English predecessors in the role, Diana Rigg and the late Sheila Gish. Her state of hallucinatory mental illness is immediately transparent. And that’s the problem: the performance is complete before it’s begun.
Racine’s version of the story is far more “accessible” to us than its sources in Euripides and Seneca. In the captured beauty, Aricia (a sweetly subdued Marcella Plunkett), with whom Hippolytus (a ruffled, simpering Ben Meyjes, replacing the indisposed Paul Nicholls at short notice) has fallen in love, Racine creates a new dimension in the tangle of passion and secrecy.
Tom Cairns, directing and designing in the manner of his mentor, Philip Prowse (who directed the Jackson production), places the action in an airless grey palace, a circular skylight hinting at the gods and elements beyond, with some fleeting filmed images of scudding clouds and rampaging horses.
Linda Bassett and Janet Whiteside maintain an air of fussing anxiety around the queen. Michael Feast as the returning king Theseus – reports of his demise have been exaggerated - and Sean Campion as the wide-eyed narrator of the spectacular death of Hippolytus, both convey an easy, downmarket sense of familiarity. But making Racine “natural” is both a fool’s errand and an admission of defeat.