It’s a funny thing, Racine in English, and it’s nobody’s fault, really, but it just doesn’t work. The pleasure of hearing those rolling alexandrines crash around your ears in the original rhythmic, and rhyming, verse, was evident in Declan Donnellan’s recent Cheek by Jowel revival of Andromaque, with French actors.
For this Phedre at the National, director 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.
Hytner and designer Bob Crowley give it every chance to prosper in a sun-drenched Mediterranean setting of a stone white palace ravaged with bullet holes, open to the elements and beautifully lit by Paule Constable. This suggests the predicament of Phedre herself, descended from the Sun and fixing a return while languishing in the sexual death throes of an incestuous passion for her stepson Hippolytus.
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. Her passion for Hippolytus, given half a green light when her husband Theseus (solidly played by a glaring Stanley Townsend) is reported missing, has already done its work: 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. Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus is in love with Ruth Negga’s sweet-natured Aricia, a captive enemy of Theseus, and this gives the tragedy its added spice. Everything ends in tears, of course, and some folk are covered in blood; 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, with some good minor contributions from Wendy Morgan and Chipo Chung as courtly attendants. Margaret Tyzack is the loyal nurse Oenone. 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.